BEDFORD, MASS. -- Cardinal Warde is at work. He has stepped into a darkened lab clutterered with electrical cords, switches and testing equipment and is studying a video monitor. It displays a test pattern, generated by an experiment laid out on a lab table in efforts to develop a new type of high-definition video camera. "The resolution is quite good," Warde says to Daniel O'Mara, one of his engineers. "...I'm impressed." He suggests that one component be made slightly thinner for the next try.

Such is the daily labor of Warde and Optron Systems Inc., a research firm he established in 1982. It works in a specialized corner of a specialized field known as opto-electronics, seeking to harness light to the task of information processing. Many specialists feel that opto-electronics will one day open the door to a new generation of computers, thousands of times more powerful than today's.

Warde's story, which he told to a Smithsonian Institution seminar Monday night, in many ways could be that of any scrappy entrepreneur fighting the odds. And clearly that is the way he prefers to be known, as founder of a succesful high-tech business who just happens, if anyone is interested, to be black.

But that last fact makes him even more unusual. "Black-owned business in general has been concentrated in areas of retail sales and services," said Frank Fratoe, a research sociologist at the Department of Commerce. In recent years, companies such as Warde's have been skewing the numbers a bit, creating a larger black presence in other sectors, in particular real estate, finance and manufacturing.

In nine years, Warde has built his company into a 22-employee operation, which this year will have sales of almost $3 million. He has done it without benefit of federal programs aimed at nurturing minority-owned businesses. "For minorities to advance and get out of the ghetto, they have to stand on their own two feet," says Warde, 45. One lesson of Optron, he said, is that it can be done without special government aid.

Clearly something special drives Warde. "Very aggressive, very smart," is how Ravi Athale, an optical computing specialist at George Mason University, describes him. "And a good sportsman. He's an excellent tennis player." In public he exudes supreme but good-natured self-confidence, declaring the other night with a smile that he succeeds at most everything he takes on.

"I don't think Cardinal ever stops moving," said Bowman Cutter, a corporate strategy consultant who has known him for almost 30 years.

Part of the reason seems to be the dream of the immigrant. Warde was born on the Caribbean island of Barbados, the son of a small-scale construction contractor. Now a U.S. citizen, he came to this country in 1965 after high school, going on to earn a physics PhD from Yale and seek his fortune in general. In 1974, he joined the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That was insufficient success for him, however. So he saved money from his teaching and consulting, with the goal of establishing a company. He launched it in 1981, with $20,000, a staff of one (himself) and space in his basement. Things were rarely easy. He didn't hire his first full-time employee until 1983. And there was the time a town inspector knocked on his door, summoned by watchful neighbors who wondered why people and bottles of compressed gas were coming and going.

Being black, he qualified for federal programs that set aside business for minority companies. But he decided not to apply, on the grounds that firms can get a "stigma," a reputation for being alive only by the grace of the taxpayer. Later, after the company had established itself, he was dismayed to find that its bank had lumped it into a "community lending" program, which is aimed at minority businesses. "That has hurt us in terms of getting visibility higher up in the bank," Warde said.

Optron's bread and butter has turned out to be a federal contracting program known as Small Business Innovation Research, in which federal agencies give out research money to small firms -- it doesn't matter who owns them -- to pursue promising ideas. It can be highly competitive, but Optron has won 29 times. "There's no preference for minority firms," said Roland Tibbetts, who manages National Science Foundation grants made under the program. Referring to Warde, Tibbetts said, "He has to win in straight merit competition. And he has won."

Warde says that in his experience, the world of government contracting shows little concern for color. "Most of the technical people in the DoD are interested in solving the {research} problem," he says, referring to the Department of Defense "... They don't care if the guys working on it are black, white, green or blue."

In offices in a garden park office building in Boston's Route 128 technology corridor, Optron engineers in blue jeans set up lasers, lenses, mirrors and filters in complex experiments designed to manipulate and filter light to harness its powers to practical applications.

To date, military research has been their bread and butter. The camera Warde's firm is working on, for instance, is financed by the Pentagon's research for the anti-missile system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. But like many of the firm's projects, it could one day have commercial use, such as in high-definition television. Five years from now, Warde would like his business to be 85 percent commercial and 15 percent government.

In recent years black-owned high-technology companies such as Maxima Corp., a computer services company headquartered in Rockville, have emerged. But they remain the exception. A U.S. census study found, for example, that in 1987 only 136 of the nation's 424,165 black-owned firms were involved in the manufacture of electric or electronic equipment.

Lack of technical education, start-up money and support from fellow members of the group are cited by academics as factors that tend to keep black businesses small and in areas of low technical expertise. But other minorities, which stress education and have well-oiled family and community support mechanisms, have excelled in creating new technology firms, in particular those from the Indian subcontinent, Taiwan and South Korea.

Warde recalls attending his first optics conference in 1974. In the crowd of thousands of people, there were only two black faces. "Blacks traditionally have not been gravitating toward the sciences," he said.

Part of the problem, he suggests, is that people in fields like his need to start early. They need to get a firm foundation in math and science in grade school, but that simply isn't happening in the United States. "There's a national problem in our country that can only be solved by federal intervention, to get the masses of people in the inner-cities educated."

Optron at present has only one black American other than Warde in a technical job. But he notes that white America is also falling behind in this field. When looking for new hires, he often finds that foreigners come with the best credentials. His firm's first full-time hire was Chinese. It is about to hire a Korean.

In his spare time, Warde tries to act as a role model for young blacks who are interested in science. He works with black student groups at MIT (he hosted a dinner from a graduate students' association last month), counsels individuals and has attended a high school science fair in the Boston area. Optron doesn't have money to spend in the community, he said. His presence is the best he can do.