Bob Johnson of Omega Optical Inc. and the Large Magellanic Cloud as seen by the Hubble Telescope, NASA.

Through a Glass Brightly

by Julia Lynam

From inner space to outer space, Omega Optical’s technologies make life better for all of us

Robert Johnson is president and technical director of Omega Optical Inc., a Brattleboro manufacturer of a wide variety of custom and stock filters for scientists and industry worldwide.

Looking more like a large and beautiful barn than a factory, the worldwide headquarters of Omega Optical is a place of extremes.

This 120-employee Brattleboro company designs and manufactures finely engineered optical filters used in scientific research and instrumentation. Production temperatures inside low-pressure tanks can range from 10 degrees above absolute zero up to 5,000 degrees centigrade. The scope of the work can range from the atomic to the astronomical.

One of the most extreme aspects of Omega may be its founder, Robert Johnson, a native of Brattleboro who, with this new off-the-grid, energy-efficient building, has begun to establish a unique 133-acre industrial/residential/educational campus on a former brownfield site.

When completed, Delta Campus will be the realization of a long-held dream to effectively model the energy conservation and recycling techniques that Johnson has pursued for more than 40 years.

Two-thirds of the site will remain forest and open land, while the remaining 40 acres will host not only Omega Optical’s World HQ and six other environmentally friendly businesses, but also between 40 and 100 residential units.

“When I think about Bob,” says high school classmate Mark Richards of The Richards Group Insurance in Brattleboro, “I think about a brilliant guy, a real forward thinker who’s very socially responsible. He’s on the cutting edge in optics, and he’s very, very entrepreneurial. He starts with an idea and he makes it happen. He’s truly walking the walk with his new building.”

Alongside his 40-year pursuit of alternative energy projects, Johnson has developed Omega into a world-class company supplying filters for space exploration, the Human Genome project and the filming of movies like Star Wars.

Johnson describes his company’s product as “the optical analog of a microchip” — a compact technology that enables a vast range of possibilities for scientific advancement. In the cameras of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Omega filters help photograph whole galaxies, planets and nebulae; they play a vital role in cameras used to photograph organisms at the cellular level, helping to identify diseased and healthy cells; they are used in DNA sequencers and analyzers to untangle the genetic code of organisms and in industrial instrumentation, environmental monitoring, telecommunications and semi-conductor manufacturing.

Sean Sullivan, Omega Optical Inc.Omega Optical’s 120 employees help make optical filters used in a wide array of diverse scientific applications. Sean Sullivan, thin-film technician, analyzes data.

Omega uses more than a hundred kinds of glass imported from France, Germany and Japan. Skilled workers cut the glass sheets to size and grind their surfaces smooth before coating them with the extremely thin layers of metals, refractory oxides or rare earths that determine the properties of the filters.

“I’ve been excited about fixing machines and solving problems from a very young age,” he explains. “I grew up on a farm in West Brattleboro, and I expected to become a mechanic or a mechanical engineer. I just shifted away from tractors to a different type of matter in motion!”

That shift began in 1963 with an invitation from Dr. Edgar Barr, a former teaching colleague of Johnson’s father at the American Institute in Beirut. Physicist Barr, a pioneer of thin-film optical filters, had worked with the Manhattan Project to develop devices to shield human eyes from the effects of nuclear explosions. He invited young Robert, fresh from high school, to join his optical filter company in Cambridge, Mass.

Johnson set up his own company five years later in a 400-square-foot shed on the family farm. It grew rapidly and, in 1975, was moved to the former All Souls Church on Brattleboro’s Main Street. Johnson established a factory floor in the basement and office and retail space on the main floor while retaining the architectural integrity of a historic church. “We grew about 50 percent annually at first, then slowed down to 15 percent,” he says. “In the early days, a lot of the work was for foreign customers, because optics had more emphasis then in Europe than it did in the US.”

Early contracts included work on the Halley’s Comet probe for the European Space Community, fluorescence spectroscopy for the University of Pennsylvania, and filters for instruments that analyzed the constituents of processed food in order to fulfill FDA requirements.

“In the ’70s our focus was on agriculture and astronomy, and in the ’80s we shifted to the life sciences, developing filters needed by manufacturers of instrumentation for high-speed sequencing of DNA,” Johnson continues.

In the 21st century, Omega is broadening its scope. “We plan to move up the technology food chain to provide not just the product but intellectual property as well,” he says. “We’re hoping to develop a quite revolutionary new approach to digital cameras, primarily for cinematographic and scientific applications.”

Omega is being divided into two separate divisions: Omega Filters, which will continue with the company’s traditional production; and Omega Labs, the research and development arm, which still occupies the old church but which Johnson plans to move into a new Delta Campus building next year.

Tina White, Omega Optical Inc.Ninety-five percent of Omega’s employees are hired locally and trained by the company. Tina White, a thin-film technician, deposits a thin-film coating.

It was a retail outlet in that old church that enticed Gary Goodemote into the world of Bob Johnson in 1978 as friend and business partner. Visiting Brattleboro, Goodemote spotted a store called Friends of the Sun in the church. “The store was all about energy,” he recalls. “There were solar cells and an electric car that Bob had built.

“I applied for a job, and a year later Bob hired me as a bookkeeper, although I didn’t know a thing about bookkeeping. Two years later I became a partner in the store. After the first couple of years, I was doing all the day-to-day running of the store and he was the most silent of silent partners.” Goodemote became sole owner of the store, now on Putney Road, in 2000.

Friends of the Sun and other projects, such as Solar Hill, established to demonstrate solar technology and now a center for alternative healing and therapies, have been manifestations of Johnson’s long-term dedication to energy-efficient technology that has culminated in the creation of the Delta Campus.

“Bob has an outlook that’s different from most people,” Goodemote continues. “He believes if something will make sense in 10 years’ time, we should do it now. He believes in there being a local circle and everybody working together; if we spend money locally it comes around and multiplies.

“I’ve always thought of Bob as someone who would give people opportunities, and one thing I got from him is taking the long view in hiring people — they may not know what they’re doing at first, but in time there’s a chance they’ll get good at it!”

While Johnson does recruit some specialists, 95 percent of Omega’s staff are hired locally and trained by the company. “His contribution to Brattleboro has been to build a true homegrown business that’s gone from one person to be a major employer of national and international renown,” says Richards. “We don’t have flocks of businesses moving in here from Boston and New Haven; we rely largely on the incremental growth of small businesses to make us what we are, and we value good jobs and the leadership of inspirational people like Bob Johnson. I’m sure that jobs at Omega Optical are very sought-after.”

One reason for that might be the new building, which incorporates countless environmentally friendly and energy-conserving techniques that create a pleasant working atmosphere. Electricity is generated on site using biodiesel fuel. That energy, Johnson explains, is re-used several times for manufacturing and other purposes, with surplus heat eventually being channeled from the building under the walkways to keep them ice-free in winter. The building incorporates water-recycling techniques that have reduced the company’s water consumption by 80 percent. Low-energy, light-emitting diodes illuminate corridors and bathrooms, and the parking lot is surfaced with light-colored Vermont limestone to avoid the heat buildup characteristic of large areas of black asphalt in summer.

Much of the wood for floors and other interior features was harvested on site, and walls and windows are highly insulated to conserve energy. The walls are constructed with special insulating panels that provide a rating of R-30. The windows have double-pane, low-emissivity, argon-filled panes. Recycled and low-emitting building materials were used wherever possible to prevent the off-gassing that causes “sick building” syndrome.

Johnson still lives on the family farm with his wife, Elaine, who runs the Solar Hill complex. Their son, Owen, finishes high school this year, and Robert has two older children: Robin, a creative mason who sculpted the huge representation of the DNA helix that stands at the entrance to Delta Campus, and Maryam, an assistant district attorney in Queens County, N.Y.

Without the genius of Robert Johnson, Brattleboro would be a poorer place. As Richards says: “I always get a kick out of asking Bob what he’s up to right now. It’s nice to know someone like that.” •

Images this story courtesy of Omega Optical Inc. @2006. The background photo of Large Magellanic Cloud is from the Hubble Telescope, image credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).