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Greenlight Optics
Invention of the Laser
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lasers are used in everyday functions: checkout scanners at supermarkets; Blu-ray Discs playing movies; laser printers producing important documents; even in entertainment, lasers are used in laser and light shows. So where did this nifty piece of technology come from? Many people claim the origin of the laser belongs to different individuals. This ingenious piece of technology has had its history amplified throughout the years.

Albert Einstein wrote about the laser's, as well as the maser’s, theoretical foundations in his paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation” in 1917. In that paper, Einstein wrote that he discovered the theoretical foundations from re-derivation of Max Planck’s law of radiation. Planck’s law states that energy of electromagnetic radiation is confined to indivisible packets, each of which has energy equal to the product of the Planck constant. With the publication of this paper, other physicists and engineers began to research the foundations as well.

For decades, however, there were no serious studies of lasers until 1957. In that year, Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow began studying the infrared laser. During their study, Townes and Schawlow switched from focusing on infrared light to visible light. In 1958, the lab Townes and Schawlow worked at, Bell Labs, filed a patent for an “optical maser” — the name the duo had come up with for the concept they were working on.

In that same year, a graduate student at Columbia University, Gordon Gould, was working on his doctoral thesis about energy levels in excited thallium. Well, Townes and Gould got wind of each other and eventually spoke. When they met, radiation emission was the hot topic they spoke about. After this, Gould and a physicist from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Prokhorov, both discovered the importance of using an open resonator in laser devices — independently of each other. Even Townes and Schawlow had incorporated an open resonator in their design of a laser device. But as this was before the time of the Internet, none of these men knew of the others’ accomplishments.

That’s when the controversy began. The first published usage of “LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” is recorded in one of Gould’s notebooks and later in a paper published by Gould. Others had just been using the term coined by Townes and Schawlow, “optical maser.” After coining laser, Gould rushed to apply for a patent in 1959. Ultimately, he was turned down by the patent office and a patent for the laser was awarded to Townes and Schawlow in 1960, as they had applied for a patent in 1958 with an optical maser. Immediately, Gould challenged this, stating that he had come up with the term in his notes back in 1957.

While Gould was busy fighting for his right to the patent for the laser, another physicist appeared on the scene, Theodore Maiman. Maiman is known to have invented the first working laser. In 1960, in front of numerous research teams — including those from Bell Labs and Technical Research Group (where Gould worked) — Maiman operated a laser at Hughes Research Laboratories. Later in the same year, Maiman was awarded a patent for the invention of the laser.  After this introduction of an operational laser to the world, more and more was discovered about its technology and its various uses.

As the laser has developed substantially over the last century, so have its uses. Consumer electronics, medicine, law enforcement and entertainment have all found different uses for the laser. Its beginning may have had many ups and downs — along with many disputes over who truly discovered it — but what is certain is that all of the men who worked on the development of the laser will radiate throughout history.


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