16 May 1960: the first working optical laser

A laser at the Hughes Aircraft Company

In 1917, Albert Einstein proposed that it was possible to manipulate light with mirrors in such a way as to produce an incredibly pure and focused burst of light.

As a result, the idea of ‘death-rays’ that could slice through objects with pinpoint accuracy became a staple of science fiction. But the civilian use of such technology was not immediately apparent, so there was little interest in the topic.

After World War II, the US military started to invest in laser-related research, hoping that laser would improve the accuracy of radar. The first breakthrough was in 1953, when a team at Columbia University, led by Charles Townes, produced the Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

While it amplified microwave beams (rather than light), it proved that the process could work. In 1958, Townes outlined the idea for a gas-based Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

In 1959, Theodore Maiman, who had previously worked on shrinking the size of the Maser, went to his employer, the Hughes Aircraft Company, with an idea for modifying Townes’ design.

He produced a working prototype that used a ruby for the amplification. This idea was patented and won him many awards, including the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics.

A year later, the first medical operation involving lasers was carried out on a cancer patient. By the 1970s lasers started to play a key role in the manufacturing of computer circuits.

The development of the barcode scanner, in 1974, would move lasers out of the lab and into people’s day-to-day lives. At the moment they are used in everything from eye surgery to laser printers and modern fibre-optic telephone systems.

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