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Obituary: George A. Economou / Authority on large telescopes

Saturday, April 05, 2003

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George A. Economou, an optical systems expert who helped set up special cameras to photograph and study the first test of the atomic bomb in 1945, died of lung cancer Wednesday at Allegheny General Hospital. He was 79.

Mr. Economou, who built his first telescope at the age of 12, officially retired in 1990 as group vice president, optical instruments for Contraves Goerz Corp. in O'Hara, but the Fox Chapel resident continued to work on some of the industry's more high-profile projects.

Earlier this year, he had been scheduled to make another visit to central Mexico as part of his role on an international scientific advisory committee overseeing construction of the world's largest radio telescope of its type. He was too sick to make it.

"He was a world-recognized authority and expert on large telescopes," said Allen Langord, managing director of the Large Millimeter Telescope project. Langord had recommended Mr. Economou be tapped for the joint project of the University of Massachusetts and Mexico's National Institute of Astronomy, Optics and Electronics.

The fascination with optics started early. Born in Manchester, N.H., Mr. Economou made the local newspaper with his first telescope. That brought an invitation to visit the observatory at Harvard University, something he did many times, said his wife, Nancy L. Economou.

Eventually, he would attend Harvard, earning a bachelor's in astronomy in 1944. While in school, he also worked at Polaroid Corp., a combination of experiences that attracted the attention of the military.

In 1944, Mr. Economou joined the Army and was assigned to the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, N.M. On July 16, 1945, the team set up about 50 cameras to try to capture the first test, studying shock waves and other factors, said Ben Benjamin, another member of the team and now a volunteer at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.

It wasn't easy, Benjamin recalled. "You'd ask the boss, 'How bright is this going to be?' " No one knew what to expect. The cameras would take thousands of images per second. The two young men watched from a vantage point six miles away.

After the war, Mr. Economou went back to private industry, but much of his career was spent working for military and government customers. He was employed by Polaroid until 1948, when he joined Sandia Corp. in New Mexico, where, among other things, he helped develop telescopes that could track missile launches and aircraft. He stayed in the field when he was with Perkin-Elmer in Connecticut from 1956 to 1961.

In 1961, Mr. Economou came to Pittsburgh for a position with J.W. Fecker Co. on Baum Boulevard. A decade later, he moved to Contraves.

"He was at the edge of the technology all the time," even to the end, said Jim Colker, who retired as president and chairman of Contraves Goerz in 1987.

The two men were involved early in the Subaru Telescope project, which put a massive telescope on a 14,000-foot peak in Hawaii for the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. Mr. Economou helped conceptualize the design of a 27-foot-diameter mirror for the telescope.

Besides his wife, Mr. Economou is survived by three sons, George A. Economou Jr., of Cambridge, Mass.; James Economou and William Economou, both of Albuquerque, N.M.; and a daughter, Zoe Stephenson, of Albuquerque.

The family will receive friends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today in Thomas M. Smith Funeral Home and Crematory, 930 Center Ave., Blawnox. The service and interment will be private.

Teresa Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.

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