Laser Inventor Dies at 79

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Theodore Maiman, PhD, inventor of the first operable laser and twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, died May 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His death was confirmed by his wife, Kathleen.

He had been called “the father of the electro-optics industry,” according to a biography at the IEEE virtual Museum, but Maiman considered himself "a scientist and an engineer, with research interests in electro-optics, lasers, displays and aerodynamics."

While employed at Hughes Research Laboratories as a section head in 1960, Maiman developed, demonstrated and patented a laser (US Patent No. 3,353,115) using a pink ruby medium for which he gained worldwide recognition. The IEEE said, "His invention was influenced by an article by Arthur L. Schawlow and Charles H. Townes, 'Infrared and Optical Masers,' which appeared in The Physics Review in 1958. In their article, the two scholars laid out a theoretical basis for the laser construction and outlined some of its problematic aspects. Maiman became the winner of the race to create the laser, which began in 1959."
Theodore Maiman (right) receiving an honorary degree from Simon Fraser University in 2002; at left is John Waterhouse, vice president, Academic and provost. (Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University)
In addition to the work done at Hughes, other institutions such as Bell Labs, RCA Labs, Lincoln Labs, IBM, Westinghouse and Siemens engaged in the project. "Maiman, after nine months of creative, yet hard and under-funded, labor, succeeded first. The inventor himself explains the success by such factors as his favorable academic background (in electronics and optics), quest for simplicity, unconventional thinking and a 'maverick spirit,'" the IEEE said. 

At the time of its invention, Maiman's laser was referred to by some as a "death ray." In a popular anecdote, Maiman commented on the New York press conference (in 1960) at which his development of the laser was announced: "One reporter came up to me and asked me about using the laser in developing weapons. I told him I didn't think it very likely. He asked me if I would deny that the laser could be used that way, and I said no. The next day, there were headlines in every newspaper around the country, screaming: 'L.A. Man Discovers Science-Fiction Death Ray.'" (Bette Davis also reportedly asked him, at a party, whether he felt any regrets about inventing the "death ray.")

Maiman also held patents on masers, laser displays, optical scanning and laser modulation. In 1962, he founded his own laser company, Korad Corp. He formed Maiman Associates in 1968 after selling Korad to Union Carbide Corp. and joined TRW in 1976, according to the Web site of the Inventors Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 1984 (the London-based Independent newspaper reported today that Maiman met his wife on the flight home afterward).

Born in Los Angeles on July 11, 1927, Maiman in his teens earned college money by repairing electrical appliances and radios, the Inventors Hall of Fame said. The IEEE said his later academic pursuits were inspired by his father, an electronics engineer and an inventor. Theodore attended the University of Colorado and received a BS in engineering physics in 1949, then went on to do graduate work at Stanford University, where he received an MS in electrical engineering in 1951 and a PhD in physics in 1955.

A member of both the National Academies of Science and Engineers, he was also a recipient of 1983/1984 Physics Prizes. Three years later, he became laureate of the prestigious Japan Prize, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel.

He was also the author of The Laser Odyssey (Laser Press, 2000). An description says of the book, "Maiman takes his readers through a riveting expose of the Machiavellian scene behind the creation of the first laser. It is a personable chronicle of a maverick scientist who defied conventional wisdom while he blazed his own trail."

In his convocation address as an honorary degree recipient at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 2002, Maiman had this advice for graduates: "For those of you who are willing to take the risk of blazing new trails, you need to appreciate a reality of life: You will find that the more you deviate from conventional wisdom and the well-beaten paths, the more your consensus of agreement will diminish. Naturally, if you achieve your goal in spite of going against established views, it is especially sweet. But, even if your goal is not achieved, there still is a rich reward for your choice. You will experience the thrill and excitement of an adventure. I assure you, it will not be boring."

Mrs. Maiman said the world's first laser will be displayed at  a celebration of her husband's life, planned for May 16 -- the "birth date" of the laser. (See: Tribute to Theodore Maiman Set)

Published: May 2007
An SI prefix meaning one billionth (10-9). Nano can also be used to indicate the study of atoms, molecules and other structures and particles on the nanometer scale. Nano-optics (also referred to as nanophotonics), for example, is the study of how light and light-matter interactions behave on the nanometer scale. See nanophotonics.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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