Engineering’s Frank Tittel reflects on half a century at Rice


Frank Tittel

Frank Tittel (Photo courtesy of the George R. Brown School of Engineering)


By Patrick Kurp

Thirty years ago, Lihong Wang arrived for his first visit to Houston after midnight at the end of a long and much-delayed flight from China.

Waiting for him at the airport were Rice Professor Frank Tittel and Tittel’s wife. “They had a flat tire on the highway to the airport,” Wang remembered. “This was long before the mobile phone days. Despite the hardship, they remained high-spirited all the way.”

Today Wang is the Bren Professor of Medical Engineering and Electrical Engineering at Caltech. Tittel, his benefactor, recently completed 50 years at Rice, where he is the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of bioengineering. Tittel joined the Rice faculty in August 1967.

“Dr. Tittel taught me the most about work ethic and efficiency,” Wang said. “He taught me that the academic system rewards hard work: ‘The more you put in, the more you get out.’ He taught by example. I still remember seeing his large van parked, with front wheels tilted, in front of the Space Sciences Building nearly every weekend. He taught me how to get work done.”

What brought Tittel to Rice was a still-new technology, the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). The first was built in 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories, based on theoretical work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.

“That was an exciting time to be in on the early development of something so promising and important,” Tittel said. “We didn’t even yet know how important.” Tittel had started building lasers at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., shortly after arriving in the United States from England. On his first day at GE in 1960, he was asked to recreate the breakthrough beam made by Maiman.

“That used brute force,” Tittel said of his own laser, which consisted of a ruby rod, a camera flashlamp and a power supply. That first model was later donated by GE to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. “Now we’re more sophisticated,” he said.

Tittel was born in Schweinfurt, Germany, in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power. The city remains an industrial center, renowned for manufacturing ball bearings, and was often bombed by the Allies during World War II. Tittel’s father, a chemical engineer who worked for a company that manufactured photographic emulsions, was killed in a skiing accident when Tittel was still a boy. His mother was Jewish. The Nazis seized their house, and in 1940 she took her own life.

Tittel lived with various foster parents in Germany and in a camp in Czechoslovakia. The train on which he and other children were evacuated from the camp was strafed by American fighter planes. After the war, in 1946, Tittel went to England to live with his mother’s sister.

“History,” he said, “has many strange twists. That’s how a boy from Germany ended up living in Gloucestershire.”

Tittel earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Oxford University in 1955, 1959 and 1959, respectively. From 1959 to 1965 he worked as a research scientist at the GE plant in upstate New York and spent 1965-67 as an associate professor at the American University in Cairo.

At Rice, Tittel pioneered the use of lasers in the spectroscopic detection of molecules and biomolecules. He worked with Robert Curl and the late Richard Smalley, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. Curl is University Professor Emeritus and the Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus at Rice.

In addition to laser technology, Tittel’s research has ranged from quantum electronics, nonlinear optics, novel solid-state and gas laser developments to applied spectroscopy.

He is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the Optical Society of America, the American Physical Society and SPIE (International Society for Optical Engineering). His citations and Google Scholar h-index, a metric that measures a scientist’s productivity and citation impact, have reached 24,880 and 73, respectively. Recently he was named co-recipient of the 2018 IEEE Medal for Environmental and Safety Technologies.

Early in his tenure at Rice, Tittel created one of the first tunable lasers, with a wavelength that could be set to specific frequencies, an innovation that led to the development of laser spectroscopy. In 2002, Tittel, Curl and their colleagues developed a technique called quartz-enhanced photo-acoustic absorption spectroscopy, which makes possible the development of devices as small as a smartphone.

Building on that breakthrough, Tittel and his research group tested a highly sensitive portable sensor to detect greenhouse gases. Using the small device at a Houston dump, they found that it could detect trace amounts of methane, 13 parts per billion by volume (ppbv), and nitrous oxide, 6 ppbv.

“Not all lasers are so specialized,” Tittel said. “There are thousands of lasers just on this campus. They are everywhere and people are often not even aware of them.” Everyday applications include bar-code scanners, CD players, laser surgery, laser printers and speed-limit enforcement (LIDAR).

After more than half a century at Rice, Tittel was asked when he plans to retire. He replied, “When my last federal dollar runs out.” That would be May 31.

–Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.



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