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Legends Revisit Laser’s Birth

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SAN JOSE, Calif., May 16, 2010 — During the Laserfest History Symposium Sunday at CLEO/QELS 2010, 50 years to the day since the laser was first demonstrated, several key figures from its early days reminisced about the introduction of the technology that changed the world.

The symposium, "Retrospectives on the Invention of the Laser," attracted more than 600 conference attendees and featured talks by Kathleen Maiman, widow of ruby laser inventor Theodore H. Maiman; Nicolaas Bloembergen, who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in physics with laser pioneer Arthur Schawlow for their revolutionary spectroscopic studies of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter; Charles Townes, inventor of the laser's predecessor, the maser; C. Kumar Patel, inventor of the CO2 laser; Marshall Nathan, a key player in the invention of the semiconductor laser; Edward Moses, principal associate director of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Orazio Svelto of the Polytechnic School of Milano, Italy; Tony Siegman of Stanford University; and science and technology writer Jeff Hecht.

Maiman, who met her future husband in 1984 on a 747 shortly after he was inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame, described him as a "maverick and contrarian" who wanted to prove ruby as a lasing medium because Schawlow said it wouldn't work. Ted Maiman was uniquely suited for being the first to make a laser because of his concentration, focus, tenacity and training in physics and in engineering, thanks to his electrical engineer father's home electronics lab.

Kathleen Maiman of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, discusses her husband, Theodore H. Maiman, at the LaserFest History Symposium, "Retrospectives on the Invention of the Laser," on Sunday, May 16, at CLEO/QELS 2010 in San Jose, Calif. Photonics Media photo by Laura S. Marshall.

Ted learned to love science and inventing from his father, and they often competed and explored theories together. His father's inventions were ridiculed and rejected by his peers, but years later they were proved to have sound scientific and commercial value. The rejection of his father's ideas "had a profound effect on Ted," she said.

His design for the laser was simple and used readily available materials. The entire project cost his employer, Hughes Research Laboratories, $50,000 and took just nine months to complete. When his work was sometimes challenged, "he would take the ruby out of his pocket and say, 'Here is the first laser,'" she said.

After Hecht gave an overview of how Ted Maiman advanced the maser concept into the laser, Siegman provided a quick overview of some of the earliest advances in laser resonators, from the invention of closed microwave cavities in 1936 to the suggestion of Fabry-Perot interferometers for laser cavities in the 1950s.

Svelto discussed some of the early developments in laser science and technology as derived from original research papers, beginning with a 1958 paper by Townes and Schawlow that began the race to make the laser.

"I remember the early days as a frustrating period," he said, "because things failed or didn't work at all."

At the LaserFest History Symposium, Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes of the University of California, Berkeley, looks back at the beginning of the laser. Photonics Media photo by Laura S. Marshall.

Bloembergen, 90, also talked of the early maser days, sharing with the crowd an amusing story from those days. Bloembergen and his wife were together at an event with Townes and his wife, France. Bloembergen's wife commented that Charles had made his wife a nice pendant from the ruby used by his maser and asked when she could expect a similar gift. "My maser works with cyanide," was his reply.

Bloembergen was followed by Townes, who will turn 95 in July. He talked about how the laser came about through "hard, intensive, concentrated work." Although today the concept of the laser seems obvious, he said, sometimes it's easy to cling to old ways of thinking and to be blind to new ideas.

"I'm just amazed and impressed" with what people are doing with lasers today, Townes said.

C. Kumar N. Patel of Pranalytica Inc. speaks at the LaserFest History Symposium on the search for high-power lasers. Photonics Media photo by Laura S. Marshall.

Patel discussed the search for high-power lasers, from his invention, the CO2 laser, to the invention of quantum cascade lasers in 1994. He said his company, Pranalytica, is now commercializing quantum cascade lasers with help from DARPA and NIST.

Nathan chronicled the development of the semiconductor laser at IBM in 1962. He was followed by Moses, who provided an update on NIF's plan to generate fusion energy, beginning with achieving ignition in 2011.

For more information on the early days of the laser, visit our interactive timeline

For Photonics Media's coverage of the CLEO/QELS Conference, visit our Industry Events page.

For more information on CLEO/QELS, visit:
May 2010
An acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Predecessor to the laser, the maser or 'microwave laser' was the first device to produce coherent electromagnetic waves, and was done at microwave frequencies through amplification by stimulated emission. A laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is a maser that works over a broader range of higher frequency photons in the ultraviolet and visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
An electromagnetic wave lying within the region of the frequency spectrum that is between about 1000 MHz (1 GHz) and 100,000 MHz (100 GHz). This is equivalent to the wavelength spectrum that is between one millimeter and one meter, and is also referred to as the infrared and short wave spectrum.
A volume, bounded at least in part by highly reflecting surfaces, in which light of particularly discrete frequencies can set up standing wave modes of low loss. Often, in laser work,the resonator contains two facing mirrors that may either be flat (Fabry-Perot resonator) or have some spherical curvature, which together bind the lasing material that is referred to as the gain medium, and hence the optical cavity of a laser is where lasing occurs.
Charles TownesCLEO Expo 2010CLEO/QELSCLEO10CO2Edward MosesenergyFabryHughes ResearchIBMinterferometersJeff HechtKathleen MaimanKumar Patellaser historyLaserFestMarshall NathanmasermicrowaveNicolaas BloembergenNIFOrazio SveltoPerotPranalyticaquantum cascaderesonatorsemiconductor lasersTheodore MaimanTony Siegmanlasers

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