Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
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It is unlikely that everyone reading these lines was in Paris, and in London, and in New York, and in Barcelona (my sincere congratulations to all those who actually was, but obviously they are not all the people). However, almost everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, and the Sagrada Familia look like.

And the point is not only that Visa and Registration for Foreigners Offices, exit visas, and commissions of the old Bolsheviks at the regional party committees have disappeared somewhere. You just saw photos and videos of these extraordinary places. And not only them – there are many more. Magazines, websites, movies, and videos…

It is clear what shoots them: still-shot cameras, moving picture cameras, video cameras… And they shoot well, these God damn iron things – you just can’t take your eyes off some pictures and frames! And it is easy to shoot with them, and the quality is downright wonderful, and every frame is worth a penny, and in general, shoot till you drop!

And there is virtually no doubt that almost all the lenses, with the help of which we were able to see everything interesting in the world, filmed all this stuff so well thanks to the big-brained head of our fellow countryman, who was born in the Ternopil region almost simultaneously with the twentieth century.




Olexander Teodorovich Smakula was born in the village of Dobrovody, standing on the right bank of the Hnizdechna River since 1463, in the Zbarazh district of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, which was part of Austria-Hungary. Now it is the Zbarazh district of the Ternopil region.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
Dobrovody. Source: iod.media

Smakula’s niece Anna Dmitrishina, who had recently lived in Ternopil, recalled that his mother Maria was a kind and wise woman and brought up her children in a spirit of nobility and honesty. And his father Theodore appears in her memory as a strict person, habituating children to hard work.

Her uncle Olexa, a future scientist, was remembered by her as caring, very loving to her little brother and sister, and ready to protect them from any offences. Having easily finished the elementary school in his native village, he continued to study first at the Zbarazh gymnasium and then at the Ternopil one.

Professor of mathematics and physics Myron Zaritsky became the curator of the graduating school class of Smakula at the Ternopil gymnasium. It was he who advised the young man to continue his studies at the University of Göttingen. But this was not achieved immediately – difficult times put a crimp in the scheme.




After the military defeat, Austria-Hungary disintegrated, and now there are seven European states in their entirety and six in part on its territory. And there were even more of them before. In particular, Ternopil was part of WUPR – the West Ukrainian People’s Republic.

This state declared its independence before Poland, and as soon as Poland did so, it turned out that they laid claims to the same territory. Romania claimed another part of WUPR, and WUPR formed the Ukrainian Galician Army – UGA – for its defense.

Olexander Smakula joined the UGA, and there were no other options for him – starting from the age of 18, he simply had to be drafted there. The only war in which the UGA actively participated was the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918-1919, and personally I am glad that Smakula did not show any special heroism in it…

Then the UGA officially joined first the followers of Petliura, then the followers of Denikin, and then the Reds, on which its existence, of course, ended. And Smakula, fortunately, just returned to the community of civilians and in 1922 managed to graduate from the gymnasium in the already Polish Ternopil.




The Austrian peasant Theodore Smakula provided his son with education at the Ternopil gymnasium without any problems, but it was more difficult for the Polish peasant with the same name to help his son graduate from the University of Göttingen. Few people get richer after a hard-hitting war.

Nevertheless, Smakula honored the opinion of his curator and entered the University of Göttingen. But he was able to cope with it only by actively earning a living and studying on the local farms and even in the salt mines. He was also tutoring, of course: where could a talented poor man go?

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
University of Göttingen. Source: wikipedia.org

But it was worth taking pains for the sake of such an alma mater – the place, where the brothers Grimm, Hilbert, Dirichlet, von Weizsacker, Heisenberg, Dedekind, Born, von Laue, and many owners of no less glorious names taught, was worth the effort! This is not to mention Vladimir Lensky “from Göttingen with soulful yearning”…

In 1927, Smakula not only successfully graduated from the university, but defended a thesis and got his PhD degree. The university does not like to let a good student go – so Smakula stayed as an assistant at the Physics Institute under the guidance of Professor Pohl.




The talented student had excellent prospects in Germany: a good job with his favorite background at a prestigious university, no legal infringements and unsolvable problems. But no matter how good it is everywhere, your home is still better… Or it seems so.

When in 1928 the compatriot and former teacher of Smakula, Professor Muzychka, invited him to work at Odessa University, he enthusiastically accepted this invitation: still it was much closer to his home than distant Göttingen. So Smakula was also a fellow countryman of mine for a while…

But soon his doctoral adviser, Professor Pohl, called him back to Göttingen. It is unlikely that he could have done this without the clearly defined will of Smakula himself. I could not get to the bottom whether there was any specific reason for that. But it’s worth nothing to imagine a dozen of such reasons…

Smakula’s decision was both correct and timely. Already in 1931, Professor Muzychka was convicted of ignoring the Marxist method in his article on Kotsubinsky. He spent the rest of his life in Kazakhstan, in the cities of Kyzylorda and Semipalatinsk… Fortunately, without being imprisoned – and not everyone was so lucky.




In 1930 Smakula was already the head of the optical laboratory at the Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. He became one of the first who began to apply to optical research the concept of a new, just emerging branch of physics – the quantum mechanics.

Soon after that, certain events took place in Smakula’s life that had no direct relation to science, but were extremely positive: he married Erika Bunde and happily lived with her for more than half a century, having raised two daughters and two sons. Science is a good stuff, but there are even more important things!

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
Olexander Smakula with his wife Erika. Boston, USA, 1972. Source: iod.media


And in 1934 he moved to the famous Karl Zeiss firm to lead its research laboratory. Typically, successful industrialists turn to science only when they reach a deadlock. This was what happened then with attempts to improve the quality of optical lenses…

By the beginning of the 30s, the process of improving the quality of lenses slowed down dramatically not only at Karl Zeiss, but also at all of their competitors. There was even an opinion that nothing could be done about it, because the laws of physics and chemistry did not allow polishing glass better than they already managed to do then.


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Having applied new approaches, Smakula in 1935 makes his remarkable discovery – a way to improve optical devices, called anti-reflective coating. Normally, some of the rays were reflected from the lens, so the image was dull and contrastless.

The idea, for which the German patent No. 6885767 was issued, was that a layer of a certain material with a thickness of ¼ the incident wavelength was sprayed on the lens in a vacuum, which reduced the reflection of light from the lens and increased the contrast of the image, making it sharper.

However, for some time the method was placed on secret list in order to use it to improve military equipment. But in the end, it became common knowledge and was widely utilized to improve the quality of all lenses – photo cameras, television cameras, telescopes, binoculars, and much more.

And one more detail: the invention is old, but it has not become less widespread! Do you think there is not a single sample of it in your house? And what about your smartphone, a photo camera, or maybe even a video camera? Are they without the anti-reflective coating optics? If yes, this is antiques, so you should take it to the museum – maybe it is worth its weight in gold…

In the scientific community, the technology of anti-reflective coating has been called more than once “the main invention of the 20th century in the field of optics.” And this community is extremely meticulous, jealous, and envious, so if they said this, it means that there were very serious grounds for that…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
Coated optics. Source: wikipedia.org




The invention of the coated optics alone is a sufficient reason to honor and not forget the scientist who managed to create such a thing. But for Olexander Smakula, the anti-reflecting optics was by no means the only achievement – his scientific interests were much broader.

It was he who discovered and explored the process of transformation of crystalline carbon by excitations of p-electrons, which is still called Smakula’s inversion. He also discovered mono-crystals of thallium bromiodide, without which night vision devices become “blind”.

The relationship between the concentration of defects in a crystal, the wavelength with which it is irradiated, and the color of crystals after irradiation is still described by the Smakula’s formula. In addition, it was his developments that led to the possibility of synthesizing a number of vitamins.

However, even now it is not so easy to list all the fields, where Olexander Smakula achieved something and left noticeable results to science, in a small article. A side effect of high erudition and lateral thinking is the multiplicity of scientific interests.




If you have to live with a beast, you will learn to howl at least. The head of the Karl Zeiss laboratory could not avoid working for the war. To leave Germany – but where to go? Return to your homeland? But didn’t he read the newspapers? It could have been even worse… All the more, his work interested the German rocket scientists.

There is no escaping the fact that he did not create anything outstanding during the war years: it seems that he did not really want to. He lived like everyone else: not too easily and not too joyfully, but that’s what the war is. He lost one of his sons: medicine had other things to worry about at that time. What awaited him after the defeat?

As it turned out, a long journey and a government facility were waiting for him: without asking his opinion, he, along with a number of other prominent scientists, were ordered to pack their things and go to the United States, as one of the most valuable trophies of the war won. A year later, his wife and children managed to join him.

Collecting such trophies was handled by a special service – the Alsos mission. The very origin of such a funny name is interesting: “Alsos” means “groves” in Greek. And the head of the American nuclear project was Brigadier General Leslie Groves.

By the way, the USSR did not mind doing such things either: the author of the assault rifle Hugo Schmeisser, the outstanding nuclear energy scientist Manfred von Ardenne, and many others worked with their Soviet colleagues… And not only Smakula went to the USA, but also Werner von Braun, the creator of both V-2 rocket and Apollo-11.




At first Smakula could not even choose where to live in America and what to do. He had to work at a military laboratory fort located in Virginia, researching infrared materials for the military industrial sector. He did what he was told to do.

After a while, the requirements for German scientists were eased – both in the USSR and in the USA. Schmeisser and von Ardenne returned to Germany (of course, to the GDR), while von Braun and Smakula remained in the United States – so you can judge for yourself on where people preferred to stay. Who would have doubted that it would be like this?

In 1951, Smakula was invited to become a professor at MIT – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – one of the best technical universities in the world. Whoever has any doubts on that, can recall that at about the same time MIT professors Wiener and Shannon created a new science – cybernetics.

Soon Smakula founded and headed the laboratory of crystal physics at MIT. There he invented and introduced original technologies for crystal growing, purification, and analysis and studied changes in the properties of crystals as a result of exposure to radiation and defects.

Under his leadership, programmable single-chip microprocessors, thin-film technologies, hetero-structure lasers, and ultrapure crystals were created. He is the author of the monograph Monocrystals: Growing, Manufacturing, and Application, published in 1962.

Smakula’s authority at MIT was so great that he was soon elected full professor of this institute, becoming the only Ukrainian who reached such a high position.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
MIT. Source: viralmag.co.uk




Almost the entire scientific life of Olexander Smakula passed outside Ukraine, but he did not forget his native land. While still living in Germany, he became a full member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in Lviv and published his works there through this organization.

While living in the United States, he took an active part in the life of the Ukrainian diaspora there. In his American home, he equipped a special Ukrainian room, where he kept his considerable collection of embroidered shirts, Ukrainian books, and souvenirs.

In 1964 Smakula wrote: “I often look to Kobzar (Folk Minstrel) to disperse my sadness… I have been wandering in foreign lands for more than forty years, but I have not forgotten my Ukraine and will never forget it”. Perhaps he then feared that he would never see his homeland again – fortunately, he was wrong.

In 1972 he took part in the International Conference on Crystallography, which was held in Armenia. And after the conference, with the assistance of the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Keldysh, he got the opportunity to visit his native places – Kyiv, Ternopil, and the patria chica of Dobrovody.

People recall that when he was met at the Kyiv airport by all sorts of academic and other we-know-what officials, he told them: “Guys, let me walk on my land. Most of all I want to try Ukrainian borsch, which my mother cooked” – and went to the terminal building on foot.




He died on May 17, 1983 in Auburn, Massachusetts, and was buried there. But his scientific legacy, as already mentioned, still remains relevant – right up to the fact that by the decision of the XXX session of the UNESCO General Conference they year of 2000 was declared the year of Olexander Smakula.

People in his homeland also remember him. In the spring of 1996, the Ternopil Regional Olexander Smakula Fund was established, which aims to search for the creative heritage of Smakula and other Ukrainian scientists and return it to the active scientific and cultural circulation.

In 1992, the first international Smakula symposium was held, with the second arranged in 2000. On the occasion of his 100th anniversary, the first volume of Scientific Works by Smakula was published. On the occasion of this date, Ukrposhta (Ukrainian Postal Service) issued an artistic envelope Olexander Smakula – just have a look at it.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
Source: bomarka.com

A monument to the scientist was also erected and his memorial museum was opened in the Lyceum of Natural Sciences named after Olexander Smakula in his native village of Dobrovody. Since December 1997, the Bulletin of the Olexander Smakula Foundation has been published, and Smakula readings are held almost every year.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Olexander Smakula from the Ternopil region – the inventor of the modern technology for antireflection coating
Opening of the monument to Olexander Smakula, 1990. Source: iod.media

Well, a good beginning is half battle, although he deserves more. But there are monuments to Smakula in almost every house. If you do not believe me, take a closer look at the camera lens of your smartphone. I personally just do not believe that this is not the coated optics…

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