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  • First Laser Image Donated to Smithsonian
May 2011
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn., May 11, 2011 — After 48 years and three attempts to reach its destination, the first image of light from a laser has successfully been donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

The original photograph was taken by a young Army photographer named Dewey Browder in 1963 atop the 14,110-ft Pikes Peak in Colorado. Shortly afterward, the National Bureau of Standards sent the image off to the Smithsonian, but it was never seen again.

At the time the photo was sent, the American History Museum’s Electricity Collection was moving into a newly built facility. The historic photo was likely placed in a box and put into storage during the move and is probably still there, locked away in some enormous warehouse with other forgotten treasures.

Browder first became suspicious that the picture was missing in the mid-1990s, when he read about a new laser light collection at the institute. He called to make sure thre was a copy of his photo.

“They said they couldn’t find it,” Browder said.

Luckily, Browder, now an Austin Peay State University professor of history and department chairman, had a few extra copies of that photograph. “So, I sent another copy, along with the newspaper and the Army commendation I received for taking that first photo,” he said.

Then, in December 2010, Browder received word from Greg Kaufmann, former director of the APSU Institute for Global Security Studies. Kaufmann now works as an analyst for the US Department of Defense at the Pentagon.

“He told me they had a new exhibit for the laser light and my picture was not among the ones they were exhibiting,” Browder said.

A copy of the first image of light from a laser. (Image: Dewey Browder, courtesy of Austin Peay State University) 

Thinking it was odd that any exhibit on the laser light did not include the very first photograph of that light, Browder decided to visit the Smithsonian to see for himself. While he was there, he met Harold “Hal” Wallace, curator of the museum’s Electricity Collection.

“He said he would love to see what I’ve got, so I sent him a copy of the photo and the newspaper articles and documentation,” Browder said. “He checked everything out and said, yes, he’d love to have it. I went back up there and gave him a copy of the original photo.” He presented the image to the Smithsonian on April 8.

“They now have the original and a copy. The negative is there somewhere, too,” Browder said. “And they gave me a deed of gift from the Smithsonian.”

That collection now includes the very first photo taken of a laser’s light. And the deed of gift presented to Browder allows him to track the image within the museum’s collection, ensuring that this time it will stay put.

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