James C. Wyant

Global Optics Entrepreneur

By Tiffany Kjos

James C. Wyant, one of the world’s most renowned optical scientists and a longtime Tucsonan, leaves a legacy that will live through the graduate students he mentored, the universities he helped fund and his brilliance and innovation.

Wyant, who passed away in December at the age of 80, was an educator, a philanthropist and an entrepreneur. “What’s remarkable about Jim is that you see facets of these things in many people, but you don’t see it all in one person,” said Thomas L. Koch, dean of the University of Arizona’s James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

Wyant was “the highest integrity, highest intellect person that I think I’ve come across in the time I’ve been here,” UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said at Wyant’s Feb. 9 memorial service. “He was constantly exploring new things and thinking about the vision beyond the vision.”

Wyant was director of UArizona’s Optical Sciences Center when it became a college in 2005. He was its founding dean. The college was named after him in 2019.

A member of the National Academy of Inventors and the National Academy of Engineering, Wyant had served as president of the international optics associations SPIE and Optica, and received their highest honors. Among them were Optica’s Joseph Fraunhofer Award and Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize, and the SPIE Gold Medal, SPIE Chandra Vikram Award and the SPIE Visionary Award. He received a University of Arizona Technology Innovation Award and an Eller College of Management Entrepreneurial Fellowship, and five times received R&D Magazine’s R&D 100 Award.

In 2023, Optica made him an honorary member, said Wyant’s wife, Tammy, point out that “usually only Nobel Prize winners get that.”

Wyant grew up on a farm in Ohio, teaching himself physics and plane geometry and working on inventions in a shop his dad built for him when he was about four years old. 

He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965 at then-called Case Institute of Technology, in Cleveland, then his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics. His first job was at Boston’s Itek Corp. He landed a position as an assistant professor at the UArizona’s Optical Sciences Center in 1974 and by 1979, had attained full professorship.

Wyant cut his teaching to part time in 1982 after founding the WYKO company, based on his invention of a computerized interferometer that precisely measures the smoothness of surfaces such as giant telescope mirrors, hard disk drive heads and magnetic storage tape.

The company “hit the jackpot” when IBM began buying the interferometers to use in its quality-control process, Koch said. Wyant sold the company in 1997 and returned to teaching full-time. He later co-founded 4D Technology Corp. in Tucson. Wyant was also a prolific writer and held several patents.

Wyant retired in 2013 and was named professor emeritus, but his active affiliation with education was far from over. The Wyant family has given more than $32 million for UArizona students and faculty, including the highest amount ever pledged for endowed faculty positions.

“When he really started giving the big sums of money, he designed it in a way to get other people involved by matching gifts,” Tammy Wyant said. “He was proud of that, that he could get other people involved in the philanthropy. He made a very generous offer, like a four-to-one match or something like that, and let (donors) name it after themselves, taking no credit for that.”

Wyant has received honorary doctorates from UArizona, Case, and Rochester University. Along with his contributions, he donated millions of dollars to his alma maters – not for his benefit but for that of students.

“These three institutions – the trifecta – had an enormous impact on Jim’s life and he had an enormous impact on our institutions,” Robbins said.

Wyant was an avid hiker and ham radio operator. After ALS robbed him of the ability to speak, he continued making radio contact with people around the globe. “Even when he got ALS, he felt like he was very blessed, had lived a very blessed life,” Tammy Wyant shared. “He always said it was luck and timing that made him a success. Well, we know it wasn’t just luck and timing. It was hard work.”

Wyant is survived by his son Clair. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Louise Wyant.

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