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Stephen Benton; his holograms melded science, art, commerce

Stephen A. Benton, who invented the "rainbow hologram," opening up the science of holography to artists and art appreciators, died Sunday of brain cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Benton's discovery allowed holograms to be illuminated by light bulbs instead of lasers, thereby leading "holography out of the lab," Steven L. Smith, Dr. Benton's research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Spatial Imaging Group, said yesterday. "It was the clear opening of the door to get holography out into the world."

In addition to generating a new art form, the discovery eventually had a practical application. Credit card companies and state agencies today use rainbow holograms to deter counterfeiting of credit cards and identification cards.

Dr. Benton, 61, a longtime professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also a founding member of the MIT Media Laboratory, where he directed the Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

"Steve brought a joy and spirit of inventiveness to all that he did," Charles M. Vest, MIT's president, said in a statement. "He was a gifted teacher, scientist, engineer, and artist who personified the best of MIT."

When Dr. Benton showed his discovery to the optical society in California in 1968, viewers were amazed. They had, Smith recalled, never seen anything like it.

This first rainbow hologram, "Motif 1," was presented on a 4-by-5-inch glass plate, and consisted of three chess pieces illuminated by a single white light bulb.

Dr. Benton's invention, also known as a white light transmission hologram, contains all the hues in the color spectrum, which change as the viewer moves up and down. A number of the rainbow holograms -- commonly known today as "Benton holograms" -- are on display at the MIT museum.

Dr. Benton was born in San Francisco, where his grandmother took him to see the movie "The House of Wax" when he was 11. When he slipped a pair of plastic 3-D glasses on to watch the film, his love for all things optical began, said his wife of 39 years, Jeanne Lamphier Benton.

"There was a realism and a sense of excitement like nothing I had ever felt before. Not only was I amazed; I determined then and there to figure out how it worked," Dr. Benton told an MIT publication in 1999. Dr. Benton earned his undergraduate degree from MIT in electrical engineering in 1963 before joining Polaroid Corp. He received his master's degree and doctorate from Harvard University in 1964 and 1968 respectively.

Upon returning to MIT in 1980, Dr. Benton became a visiting scientist in the Laser Research Center, and the founding head of the Spatial Imaging Group in 1982, which continues to develop new technology and interfaces for high-quality 3-D displays.

"He was just always a kid in a toy store, just wanting to take things apart, put it together, and put it together better," Jeanne Benton said. "He really appealed to the average 10-year-old kid."

As a professor, his wife said, he resolved to establish close relationships with his students.

"He'd have dinner with them once a week, they'd come for a beach party during the summers, and if any of the kids were left over during the holidays, they were always welcome at our home and at our table" she said. Dr. Benton also worked with several holographic artists and led workshops throughout his career to teach interested artists how to make holographs.

"He had a very solid footing in theoretical science and also a very strong aesthetic in art and could see how allowing artists to work in a technical medium generated interest in the science itself," Smith said.

Smith said this fact was demonstrated by the diversity of people who came together Tuesday at a Media Lab symposium to honor Dr. Benton and his work.

"There were artists, philosophers, engineers, optical technicians all pulled together by this one common thread that their lives were greatly enhanced by this one magnanimous personality," he said. Dr. Benton was "the kind of personality that on one hand can do a very technical paper describing this very complex science, and in the very next hour help an artist visualize a hologram of a moonscape on an Australian beach."

In addition to his wife, Dr. Benton leaves a daughter, Julia of Cambridge; a son, James of Belmont; and two brothers, Nicholas of Falls Church, Va., and Chris of Santa Barbara.

A funeral will be held Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. in St. Anne's In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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