Laser Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

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, Raytheon has posted a celebratory Website that, perhaps inevitably, details its various laser-based advances in the military, communications and science fields.

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.