He was the archetypal polymath, mastering the techniques of watercolour painting, boat building, wood carving, blacksmithing and knife making, authoring papers on an image feedback computer and a genetic algorithm software package and – of most interest to this readership – widely regarded as the inventor of 2D/3D holography.
From correspondence with people who worked with Steve and from his own pen I have pulled together what I hope will be a fitting tribute to his work and impact on holography.
In his own words Steve believed that ‘if we have a purpose in this life, it is to bring new things into existence: to do art, to invent, to think new thoughts, to teach, to build, and to understand.’
He considered himself to be part of the second wave of holography – following in the footsteps of the ‘pioneers’ (Gabor, Lippman, Rogers, Lohmann and Kock) and the post-laser ‘settlers’ (Leith, Upatnieks, Denisyuk and then Stroke and Benton).
He first learnt about holography from a Science News article, then from a Scientific American article and was initially drawn to holography through its possible application to coherent optical computing. In 1975 he moved to Amsterdam and set up Europlex Holographics with three friends, where he made multiplex holograms on the machine he built in a wine cellar.
After Europlex folded, he returned to the US and worked in quick succession for Holex Corporation and then Holotron and Holosonics. He purchased the holography equipment from their bankruptcy sales and began making photoresist hologram masters and sending them to the Diffraction Company for embossing. He demonstrated the feasibility of embossed holograms to the video games company Atari and started the Cosmos project for using holographic imagery on games consoles.
But it was the ET project with Hershey’s (one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world) that really launched the 2D/3D sticker market. It gave Steve the finance to hire a few local staff to randomise the ET stickers and ship them off for inclusion in packages of Reese’s Pieces.
There then followed what has become a notorious period in commercial holography folklore – with a series of patent infringement and restrictive practice lawsuits involving Steve, US Banknote and American Banknote which lasted for more than 10 years and culminated in a settlement worth around $2 million.
In 1996, Steve’s company Light Impressions California closed, leaving Light Impressions International in London still operational. Steve continued with SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) projects which allowed him to pursue research into a holographic solar concentrator for space photovoltaics, the Universal Hologram Scanner and Reader and a hologram copier.
Steve retired in 2017 but continued to use what he had learnt from holography in projects such as AR (augmented reality) eyewear.
Reflections on Steve McGrew
John Brown – Founder, Light Impressions International Ltd
‘I first met Steve in 1976 in Amsterdam. I was running my rock and roll touring production company back then and one of my crew had stumbled over Steve’s hologram operation called Europlex Holographics and brought back a multiplex hologram.
Like many people around that time, I immediately thought this was the next big thing and got on a plane to Amsterdam where I met this highly intelligent American with many interests including designing wooden puzzles. I think Steve thought the puzzles might do better than the holograms.
It was a long time ago, so many memories are vague, but I did find Steve to be a very likeable and interesting person although I didn’t always understand everything that he was telling me about the physics of holography. But I did see a business opportunity.
We worked together for nearly 30 years, so there are too many memories covering all sorts of experiences to fully recount here, but from a holographic point of view, it must have been first seeing the 2D/3D ET hologram stickers in the early 80’s that were really the first major, non-security, commercial use of embossed holography and demonstrated that there really was a business here.
His greatest contribution to the holography industry was, in my opinion, the invention and commercialisation of 2D/3D holography because it generated enough commercial activity to finance the development of many holographic start-ups in the 80’s and to build the foundations for the decorative use of holography in hot-stamping foil and packaging.’
Professor Hans Bjelkhagen – Hansholo Consulting Ltd
‘I met Steve McGrew many times mainly at conferences and at his companies.
I helped him with patent issues. I provided him with old scientific publications which described techniques that already existed to help him avoid coming into conflict with prior art.
Steve made several important contributions to commercial holography. His rainbow master holograms were embossed at the Diffraction Company. Since rainbow holograms are of the transmission type, they have to be mirror-backed to be able to view and illuminate them from the front side. In January 1980 he started producing embossed stock holograms, sold through hologram galleries which started appearing at the end of the 1970s. The Holographic Sunrise was such an embossed stock hologram which was one of the best-selling products on the market in the early days.
The launch of ET hologram stickers, included with Reese’s Pieces candies, coincided with the opening of the Steven Spielberg movie ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ in June 1982. Within two weeks of the film’s release, Reese’s sales tripled. The 3.5 million 2D/3D hologram stickers were produced by Steve’s company Light Impressions, Inc.’
There can never be another Steve McGrew, but I hope, as he would, that his spirit of intellectual adventure will live on in the holography community.