The New Light

In May 1960, Theodore Maiman ignited the first laser flash. In December 1964, laser pioneer Charles Townes received the Nobel Prize. Only thing is, the new era that was promised was a long time in coming.

Charles H. Townes (left) and James P. Gordon
1955 – When it all started: Charles H. Townes (left) and James P. Gordon present their maser, the technology that the laser emerged from.

In 1960 laser technology seemed certain to change the world. People said it would soon be able to heal eyesight, transmit signals and bore, cut or weld workpieces. It would guide, locate or destroy rockets, measure pollution in the atmosphere or even spark off nuclear fusion. At the time, Readers Digest wrote of the "light of hope;" the New York Times saw the laser light up the future; and Time Magazine called it the "hottest thing in solid state physics since the transistor." Shortly before, the transistor had triggered the electronic revolution: The foundation of a new billion dollar industry, dominated by the USA. All significant research institutes in the USA turned to the laser, and public research programs reflected this change. During the Cold War, the US government placed great emphasis on military strength through technological advancement, greatly increasing defense spending in the 1950s. According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, the US Department of Defense invested about 1.5 million US dollars in the laser.

Ali Javan (center), Donald Herriott and William R. Bennett Jr. (from left)
1960 – Ali Javan (center), together with Donald Herriott and William R. Bennett Jr. (from left), lights his helium-neon laser, invented shortly after Theodore Maiman’s ruby laser.

To the new laser industry, the military research programs meant what shareholders and risk venture capitalists meant to the Internet industry 40 years later: easier access to financial resources. At the end of 1962, two and a half years after Theodore Maiman's successful laser experiment, the laser industry generated about 1 million US dollars, according to Barron's Magazine. Almost 500 companies were researching the laser or using it for research purposes. A scant 20 to 30 companies introduced lasers on a market that the business press predicted would grow by tremendous rates. By 1973, the prediction ran, it would be a 1 billion US dollar market. The prediction fell at least one decade too short.

By 1964 laser researchers and engineers had, indeed, done a lot of testing and experiments, prompting the editor-in-chief of Electronics Magazine, John Carroll, to publish "The Story of the Laser." The book had, among others, photos of a 500-watt laser that was boring through a steel beam and showed experiments with data storage and the transmission of TV signals. Yet the experiments left behind the reality of the situation: Each test to transfer an existing application to the laser showed that the "conventional" application remained superior unless engineers completely redeveloped the application for the laser. Disappointed, back in 1964 laser fans said famously: "The laser is a solution in search of a problem." They meant that while the transistor had easily replaced vacuum tubes, the laser was still very much an unresearched tool. And even the laser itself represented yet another problem. The laser materials were not pure enough, the construction fragile and the performance often insufficient. What was missing were applications that could set in motion the industrial spiral of increasing quantities, standardized products and falling prices.

Arthur L. Schawlow
1960 – Arthur L. Schawlow in his lab. Charles Townes and Schawlow sketched out the idea for the laser in 1958.

By the end of the 1970s, the helium neon laser was kept busy in applications such as lowerperformance lasers, scanning cash registers, laser printers and measurement technology. CD players and the expansion of data transmission networks simultaneously promoted the rapid rise of the semiconductor laser as a tiny, inexpensive laser diode. Today, digital information technologies and consumer electronics industries are dependent on the laser.

next Part 2: The rise of high power lasers

The New Light