Helen Elizabeth Voegele Gourley was an optical scientist, consultant, and engineer who spent more than 70 years developing lighting and optical solutions for some of the most prestigious institutions and manufacturers in the world. A curious and analytical child with a natural passion for learning and a drive to understand how the world worked, Ms. Gourley found herself drawn to science and mathematics at a young age. In 1949, she was awarded a four-year New York state scholarship to attend the University of Rochester, quickly adding merit-based scholarships from the University of Rochester and optical manufacturer Bausch & Lomb to her total. During summer breaks at the University of Rochester, Ms. Gourley began her career with jobs at Kodak and Wollensak, two industry-leading optical and audiovisual equipment makers based in the area. She graduated with honors in 1953 holding a Bachelor of Science in physics.
After graduation, Ms. Gourley relocated to the San Francisco area and spent the next two years as a research physicist at the University of California Medical Center while pursuing postgraduate coursework in lens design, engineering and architecture at the University of California. She was hired as a project engineer at Beckman Industries in 1955, and in 1960, she became a senior scientist at Nuclear Research Instruments in Berkeley, California. Her work with Nuclear Research Instruments centered on optical analysis tools and systems development, and resulted in the creation of unique optical components for use in the United States military’s image-measuring systems. Between 1965 and 1970, Ms. Gourley was a program manager at Quantic Industries, who manufactured navigation systems for major players in the aerospace industry including NASA and Lockheed.
Ms. Gourley’s time with Quantic Industries brought her into close collaboration with these clients during the testing and evaluation processes, and further established her as a force to be reckoned with in the optical design sector. She transitioned her focus to private consulting in 1971 as the chief optical scientist for the San Francisco-based System Sciences Group. In 1991, Ms. Gourley would assume ownership of System Sciences Group in addition to her ongoing engineering, research and development.
While many of her projects from this era remain classified, Ms. Gourley’s clients included Xerox, GE, and NASA, and she was often called in as an expert witness on optics or brought in to design components for the medical and manufacturing industries. During this time, she was asked to design lighting for the 1983 feature film “WarGames,” and was also responsible for the development of the first available ray-tracing software, a technology which grew to become indispensable to several industries in later decades.
Throughout her career, Ms. Gourley was passionate about educating others about optics, science, and engineering. She held a California state teaching credential with endorsements in electronics and electro-optics and was a guest lecturer at the University of California. For almost 30 years, she developed and presented original laser engineering workshops for high school-aged girls in the San Francisco area, and she partnered with the Lions Club, the International Society for Optical Engineering, and the Optical Society of America to speak to young women about small business and careers in science and technology. Ms. Gourley held leadership roles in numerous professional organizations, including terms as president of both the Optical Society of Northern California and the Optical Society of America, and was active in many more, from the American Physical Society to the San Francisco Tech-Net Consultants Group.
In her free time, Ms. Gourley was a talented musician and performer who took up harp at the age of 60 and performed with a partner at churches and social clubs in the Bay Area. In recognition of her groundbreaking work in her field, Ms. Gourley was presented with a 1964 President’s Award by the International Society for Optical Engineering and selected for the prestigious Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. She described her work simply, explaining that “my job is to put the light where you want it,” and took that philosophy into her designs for the military, science and industry. Ms. Gourley maintained an active role at System Sciences Group until her death in 2021, and is remembered by her husband of 48 years, Darrell, and their two children.