B.A. Lengyel, 92; Chaired Cal State Northridge Physics Dept.

Times Staff Writer

Bela A. Lengyel, the first chairman of the Cal State Northridge physics and astronomy department and the author of the first technical book about lasers, has died. He was 92.

Lengyel died Thursday of congestive heart failure in an Irvine skilled-nursing facility, said his son, Thomas E. Lengyel.

In 1962, as several companies were developing newly discovered laser technology, Lengyel wrote “Lasers.” At the time, he was working at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, and he was authorized to utilize information for the book that he had gathered for internal company use.

The 125-page book was translated into many languages--including a bootleg Russian copy--and was expanded into a second edition in 1970. The Soviet Union and other nations were interested, said CSUN physics professor Barney Bales, because the laser had uses for both the military and communications industries.


“It was a very, very useful book written clearly for someone who wanted to get into that field and didn’t know where to start,” said Kumar Patel, a UCLA professor of physics.

Julio Blanco, a former student of Lengyel’s and now chairman of CSUN’s physics and astronomy department, said Lengyel’s book “was talked about all over the world.”

Born Oct. 5, 1910, in Budapest, Hungary, Lengyel earned a doctoral degree in mathematical physics in 1935 from his hometown Pazmany University, now called Roland Eotvos University. The following year he was an exchange fellow studying math at Harvard University.

He returned to Hungary for a few years and then immigrated to the United States in 1939 to take a job as a math teacher at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He later was a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.


In 1952, he moved to Los Angeles to join the technical staff of the Hughes Research Laboratory. Although he was not directly involved in the discovery of lasers, he participated in some experiments while collecting information on the ground-breaking technology.

He returned to academia in 1963, joining the Cal State Northridge faculty and establishing the physics and astronomy department. Described by Blanco as having “very high standards and very strict values,” Lengyel taught all levels of physics. In the mid-1960s, he wrote a comprehensive textbook, “Introduction to Lasers.”

Lengyel served as department chairman until 1970 and retired from CSUN in 1977, the year he was the university’s nominee for the statewide outstanding professor award.

Lengyel is survived by his wife of 39 years, Birgit of Irvine; his son, Thomas of Cedarburg, Wis.; a daughter, Judith Lengyel of Pacific Palisades; a stepson, Hans Westberg of Redondo Beach; a stepdaughter, Karin Ahlf of Costa Mesa; a brother, Balazs Lengyel; a sister, Piri Horvath of Hungary; two grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.