The laser is 50 years young May 16, when Theodore Maiman built the first working laser at Hughes Research Labs. While initially leveraged toward military applications such as targeting, the laser eventually found its way to a wide variety of civilian uses, from communications and rock-concert visuals to CD players and tattoo removal. Although Maiman is credited with building the first working laser, a number of other researchers and scientists spent the decades following World War II developing new theories about the technology. Albert Einstein is credited with theorizing about stimulated emission, the physics underlying lasers, as far back as 1917.
Happy birthday, laser technology: May 16 marks the 50th
anniversary of Theodore Maiman's development of the world's first working Light
Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation (LASER, or laser, for those
with an aversion to all-caps) apparatus, which subsequently became a valued
tool for industries ranging from defense to medical, not to mention
science-fiction writers and video-game designers in need of a good weapon.
Maiman was a researcher at Hughes Research Labs when he
constructed that first laser in 1960. While the technology's underlying physics
had been theorized by Albert Einstein as far back as 1917, several steps
intervened between pie-in-the-sky postulation and gee-whiz operational model: First,
researchers developed the Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission
of Radiation), which also relied on Einstein's postulations about stimulated
emissions; only then did they attempt to build an "optical maser," which would
amplify light as opposed to microwaves. In the interest of accuracy and
brevity, "optical maser" eventually found itself transmuted to "laser."
"Hughes' and Ted Maiman's laser work was an evolution of
MASER work from the 1940s and -50s that tried to create more powerful microwave
sources to improve things like the capability of radar systems," Daniel
Nieuwsma, who worked with Hughes Aircraft Company's Laser Engineering Division
in the late 1970s, told
Scientific American in a May 14 interview. "[Maiman] worked his way up to
the laser [which uses light waves] as a way to get even more power."
The first working laser might have been bolted together at
Hughes Research Labs, but a simultaneous exploration and development of the
technology was already under way at a number of other facilities. Bell Labs
earned a patent for an optical maser, despite not having built one, in 1958.
As befitting Hughes Research Labs' position as a defense
contractor, researchers began working with the U.S. military to study the
laser's potential applications for weapons guidance and radar.
"I was hired to help bring in some of the lasers out of labs
and into production," Nieuwsma told Scientific American. "Part of this was
using lasers to make range finders or target designators that soldiers could
use on the ground to illuminate a target for aircraft." However, he added, work
on non-military applications such as laser welders and semiconductor lasers for
consumer applications were under development throughout the 1960s, in places
such as General Electric and Raytheon.
Raytheon, along with General Motors and Boeing, would
purchase a portion of Hughes Research Labs during the facility's existence;
Raytheon sold its portion three years ago. To mark the 50th anniversary,
has posted a celebratory Website that, perhaps inevitably, details its
various laser-based advances in the military, communications and science
These days, of course, lasers can be found in everything
from CD and DVD players to medical equipment to rock concerts. Deleting old
tattoos and providing visual accompaniment to 5-minute guitar solos may not be
what Einstein or Maiman envisioned, applications-wise-but it goes to show how
even the most esoteric bits of physics theory can, with a lot hard work and
even more money and time, eventually find their way into everyday use.
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.