May 15, 2010

The Laser Turns 50 on Sunday

Fifty years ago Sunday, a man named Theodore Maiman built the first working laser.

The Hughes Labs researcher built something that colleagues at a number of other companies and institutions had been feverishly trying to do for months, even years.

Hughes Lab veteran and current Raytheon optics and lasers senior principal physicist, Daniel Nieuwsma, said many people were working with radar and were looking for ways to boost their power.

One attempted method was using masers, or microwave amplification by stimulation of emission of radiation. According to Stanford's Gravity Probe B program, these are devices that "set up a series of atoms or molecules and excites them to generate the chain reaction, or amplification, of photons."

Albert Einstein first created the maser in 1917, but it was not until after World War II that one was actually built.

But, in 1960, people were looking to move beyond the maser to what was being ferried to as the laser, an optical maser. 

"Everyone was looking to make this optical maser work," Nieuwsma told CNET News, but Maiman "was the first to get everything together."

On May 16 of that year, Maiman used a flash lamp to simulate a pinky ruby rod to craft and use the world's first laser.

That breakthrough brought a ripple effect on the world of technology. Today, lasers are used all around the globe in a variety of industries and government agencies. They can be small devices like diode lasers, or huge systems with massive applications.

Two researchers at Bell Labs named Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow were the people who got the patent for the invention. After working for eight months straight in 1958, the two men finished a paper describing their work on the laser, despite the fact that they had not actually built one. 

Two years later the mean received U.S. patent No. 2,929,922. However, it was still Maiman who will go down in history as the man who invented the suddenly very much in demand technology.

From talking on the telephone to listening to a CD, laser-technology makes a lot of today's technology happen.

"Everyone has some sort of connection every single day to lasers -- even if most people have no idea what that connection is," Mark Bronski, manager of laser production at German-based TRUMPF Inc., the largest manufacturer of industrial lasers in North America, told CNN news.

A laser is essentially a device that creates a narrow, intense beam of light, and then amplifies that beam. 

The atoms of a physical substance, such as a crystal, are charged up while mirrors at both ends of the laser reflect the energy back and forth to strengthen it.

Maiman's "ruby laser" used a ruby rod to make it instead of a crystal.

Carbon-dioxide lasers and others are used to remove unwanted tissue from tumors, warts and tattooed skin to create incisions that are less intrusive and less painful. 

In the telecommunication field, lasers are used through fiber optics to carry laser-generated pulses of light to carry data at incredibly high speeds.

According to Bronski, lasers are shrinking in size as technology grows.

"Lasers that used to fill up a small-sized room are now the size of a desk," he told CNN. "We'll see that trend continue in the future -- things getting smaller while maintaining their outputs or increasing their outputs."

Technologies such as the kind seen in movies like Star Wars could be seen in the very near future.

"Those technologies might not be so far off," Bronski said. "At some point, it might be possible to make a much smaller package for these laser devices ... like little phasers or whatever."


On the Net:

Gravity Probe-B


Bell Labs