“We set the laboratory up in the laundry room”

In the 1950s, American Eugene Watson began a love affair with science and technology that continues today. The pioneering laser entrepreneur shares his memories of laser technology's beginnings.

Quanta-Ray, 1976
Quanta-Ray, 1976 (from left): Gene Watson with Toru Maruyama, the Japanese principle agent of his new company Quanta-Ray, his old friend and co-founder Earl Bell and Stanford University scientist Richard L. Herbst. In 1981 Watson and Bell sold Quanta-Ray to Spectra-Physics — Earl Bell’s earlier creation and Gene Watson’s former employer. The brand name is still used there.

How did you first get interested in lasers?

For me it began years before the acronym laser was invented. In the early 1950s during the Korean War, I was drafted into the Army and became a radar officer. I was never exposed to technology before, but I really took to it and became infatuated with science. The thing I liked most about science was that once you discover a scientific truth it remains forever true. The other thing that attracted me was the people - their integrity, intellect and thirst for knowledge. When I got out of the Army, I went back to the San Francisco Bay area and sought employment at a number of technology-based companies, including Varian Associates. Varian was heavily involved in microwaves, which fit with my radar background, so they hired me. At Varian I was very fortunate to establish a lifelong friendship with another self-educated scientist, a fellow named Earl Bell. He co-founded Spectra-Physics and was the one who discovered the ion laser.

How did this friendship influence you?

Earl Bell was a huge influence on me. He had a remarkable life story, which included almost singlehandedly saving an escort aircraft carrier during World War II. Earl was a very creative thinker. Always had an ingenious solution to whatever the problem was. We did a number of things together, including running a steam railroad in New Mexico and starting Quanta-Ray, a successful company eventually sold back to Spectra-Physics.

Gene Watson mit alter Anzeige
Recalling the wild times: In 1966 Gene Watson introduced Coherent’s first CO2 laser with this ad: “The first laser that can do real work.”

How did you get started working in laser technology?

After the 1958 Physics Society meeting where Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow proposed that a laser was possible and described what it would take to make a laser, it was like the fourminute mile. We thought no one could run a mile in four minutes until one guy finally did, then everybody started doing it. Nobody could make a laser work until 1960 when Ted Maiman did. Like so many others, we, too, followed along with our own ruby laser development. The ruby laser wasn't particularly exciting to me because it didn't seem to have any commercial application. I was much more interested in the helium neon laser developed in 1961. We built a helium neon laser on a breadboard at Varian immediately following the development at Bell Lab.

The laser business grew rather quickly after that, didn't it?

Yes, I joined Spectra-Physics in 1962 and their sales soared from $134,000 to $1.7 million just two years later. This growth was due to a combination of things including the curiosity market, which was well-funded, and people beginning to look into potential laser applications. At the time I could sell 100 of anything that was new. Enough labs around the world had discretionary funding and if you came up with something new, they had to have it. They would buy just to satisfy their curiosity. The question was if I could I sell 200. My job was to start people thinking about how they could use the laser as a labor-saving device. I advertised in Scientific American, which had a wonderful audience of lay people interested in science and scientists interested in the general knowledge of science. I thought if we just got exposure in that group about the various capabilities of lasers, they would spread the word. I think it sparked some new thinking.

 

What made you decide to leave Spectra-Physics?

I came to the conclusion that if I believed in the things that they paid me to investigate and recommend, then it was incumbent on me to act on them. Early in my development someone said to me, "Five percent of people make things happen, fifteen percent watch things happen, and eighty percent don't know or care that anything is happening." And I said, "I think I'm going to be one of the five percenters." If you really believe in something, you better act on it or forget it. Frequently, I act on it.

Gene watson in seiner Red Ladder Ranch in Wyoming
So much for retirement: From his Red Ladder Ranch in Wyoming, Gene Watson now helps technology start-ups.

Did you have applications in mind for the laser or just a faith in the technology?

Both. The ion laser was the next important laser for a number of reasons, one of which was it produced more power than a helium neon laser and people wanted more power. Also, the helium neon laser was characteristically red, but the ion laser ran the gamut from blues to reds. It was pretty fundamental to believe that people were going to want different colors for whatever reason. I came across the DuPont Company, which wanted "a white-light ion laser" for a holographic data storage development project. In the mid 60's no one made such a laser. DuPont proposed that Spectra-Physics make one, but management said no. That's how Coherent got started, based on my "if you really believe this, you better act on it" philosophy. It was the beginning of my life as a confessed, but unrepentant, serial entrepreneur.

Could you explain what you mean by that?

I think I was born an entrepreneur. Early in my childhood, around age 6, I sold Liberty magazines from a little pouch I carried around. If I remember accurately, I bought the magazine for 4 cents, sold it for 5 cents, and kept the penny. You can't do that today, but in those days you could. I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from the social benefits of starting a business. What we're really doing is creating wealth, and by wealth I mean the ability of people to get married, have families, buy homes, and improve their standard of living. Whether your standard of living improves your life, I don't know, that's up to you, but at least it makes it possible.

 

What truly convinced you the laser would be a useful technology?

Earl Bell and I would often discuss the problems and applications for lasers. For example, we thought back to the demonstrations of the ruby laser punching a hole in a razor blade and began to develop the idea that you could do materials processing if you had enough average power. The problem was the ruby laser didn't have average power. When the CO2 laser with its ability to generate average power came along, Earl and I immediately realized the significance of it and he said "well, Gene, that's the first laser that can do real work." It turned out to be true. Our first CO2 laser customer at Coherent was a Boeing manufacturing research lab that wanted to investigate cutting and welding titanium. The first laser that could "do real work" remains a workhorse.

Gene Watson im Gespräch mit der LaserCommunity
Gene Watson druing the interview with magazin LaserCommunity

Tell me about the first Coherent laboratory set up at your house.

Instead of renting space, we moved into my house. A 220-volt plug was needed to power the laser, so we set up in the laundry room. We used the power available for the clothes dryer to do CO2 laser experiments and the water for the washing machine to cool the thing. But we didn't have a sufficient distance to throw the beam to see if we had coherent radiation. So we got some mirrors and directed the beam out the door and across the street, onto the garage door of my neighbor, who I didn't like because he always complained. Sure enough a brown spot began to appear on his garage door and we said "hey, we've got a laser!"

 

The laser's potential seemed limitless back then. What opportunities did you envision?

Early on I was challenged by the notion that lasers could be revolutionary in medical applications. And I thought the laser would be an important tool in optical spectroscopy applications, which it is. But the ubiquitous applications please me the most. Today, every home has lasers in it somewhere.

Laser Pioneer