Back in the 70s, the laser was characterised by Loughborough University as a ‘solution that needs a problem‘. Now fast forward a few decades and it’s difficult to think where we would be without the invention of the laser. From 3D Printing to barcodes to Blu Ray to using a good presentation pointer – lasers are now a commonplace, and they have undoubtedly become a necessary solution to many different problems and obstacles in science and every day life.
But who invented the laser? Well, the definitive inventor of the laser is difficult to say, as it was a combination of work by various different men. Most people agree that Charles Townes invented the laser, whilst Theodore Maiman was the first person to actually build a laser that worked. It was actually Einstein in 1917 that came up with the principal of stimulated emission of light.
Unfortunately, Charles Townes, passed away in 2015 and left a legacy behind him. So, let’s have a look at the timeline of events that led to the invention of the laser.
Laser Inventor – Timeline of Events
- 1917 – Einstein establishes the groundwork for the theoretical application of the laser and the maser (maser stands for microwave as opposed to light) in his paper On the Quantum Theory of Radiation, Einstein , which is regarded as his most influential contribution to quantum theory, based on Einstein coefficients.
- 1951 – Joseph Weber gives the earliest known lecture on the principals of the maser. Charles Townes is in the audience and talks to Weber after the presentation.
- 1953 – Townes and his students produce the first Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).
- 1955 – Russians Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov theorize optical pumping of a multi level system, with becomes a method used for laser pumping.
- 1957 – Townes studies begin to elaborate on the maser, instead looking at the beginnings of a laser (which he called an ‘optical maser’).
- 1959 – After meeting Townes a few years earlier, Gordon Gould publishes the first paper with the term ‘laser’ in it. Although Hould filed a patent, it was awarded to the lab that Townes worked at. Gould continued to fight a 30 year legal battle until 1987, when he finally won the rights to his invention.
- 1960 – Theodore Maiman operates the first working laser in his laboratory in Malibu.
As you can see from the timeline of events, it’s extremely difficult to actually define who ‘invented’ the laser. Whilst Maiman technically made the first laser, it was based on a lot of work from Townes, so many credit Townes with being the laser inventor.
An interesting video to watch if you have the time is recorded in 1983 by Theodore (Ted) Maiman, where he recalls his concept of the laser and how he got to the point of inventing it himself.
Many considered Townes to be the true laser inventor due to his extensive work in creating the maser. Many people think that Townes became an advisor to the president after winning the Nobel prize in 1964, but this isn’t true – he was actually advisor to Harry Truman in the late 40s and early 50s too.
Aside from inventing the maser, Townes was actually part of the very first team to discover complex molecules in space.
Theodore Maiman is credited with building the first operable laser, though much of his work must have been influenced/based on the work of other physicists, he’s still credited today as the ‘laser inventor’. Maiman was working for the Hughes Aircraft Company at the time, and they announced the invention towards the end of 1960.
The man who invented the laser, Theodore Maiman, was awarded the first patent for a laser. His invention was patented on May 16th 1960. It eventually led to future developments of lasers in night-vision goggles and communications devices.
The story begins during the early 1950s when scientists began researching how they could amplify laser light using optical cavities. This type of amplification makes use of mirrors to reflect laser light that is generated by the lasing medium (laser crystal) back onto itself, thus amplifying it many times over in a process known as ‘stimulated emission’.
With this in mind, Theodore Maiman who worked at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey tried different designs of optical cavity with mirrors made from various materials before finding one that amplified light efficiently enough to prove that this was possible, which was a first. For
This achievement Maiman who is known as the ‘father of the laser’ had his idea patented in 1960 which was just a year later.
However, although he was the first to invent a working laser it didn’t work quickly enough to generate beams suitable for use in communication systems or military applications. So instead many other researchers began making their own types of lasers with optical cavities and these could produce beams aimed at different wavelengths than that of light photons emitted by atoms.
This then allowed people to produce visible line-shaped beams from infrared and ultraviolet sources, which made possible all kinds of practical applications such as sending messages through fibre optic cables without using any forms of electrical conductors, surgery equipment and even barcode scanners can now trace their roots back to this date.
Maiman convinced the company to give him a budget of $50,000 to create his laser – they were happy to do so, based on his previous successful work.
Though some people assume some competitiveness or hostility between Maiman and Townes, this isn’t the case at all. In Maiman’s obituary in 2007, Townes wrote that his laser work was one of most important contributions to science.
Overall, it’s clear to see that the laser was an invention of the minds of many great men. Although statistically it’s important to know who definitively created the laser, in reality it was a combination of people who enables the laser to become what it is today.