16 May 1960: the first working optical laser

Lasers had long since captured the imagination of sci-fi enthusiasts. But on this day in May 1960, they became a reality.

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.

Recommended

Kieran Heinemann: the history of shareholder capitalism
Investment strategy

Kieran Heinemann: the history of shareholder capitalism

Merryn talks to Kieran Heinemann, author of Playing the Market: Retail Investment and Speculation in Twentieth-Century Britain, about the history of t…
17 Sep 2021
Cryptocurrency roundup: litecoin blunder, cardano update and bitcoin mining in Laos
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrency roundup: litecoin blunder, cardano update and bitcoin mining in Laos

Saloni Sardana looks at the week’s biggest stories in the world of cryptocurrencies.
17 Sep 2021
Why it pays to face up to your investment mistakes
Investment strategy

Why it pays to face up to your investment mistakes

Buying stocks can be a complicated business. But selling stocks can be tricky, too – even if you sell for the right reasons. Max King explains how to …
17 Sep 2021
With the right political will, inflation can be defeated
Inflation

With the right political will, inflation can be defeated

Governments and central banks can easily control inflation, says Merryn Somerset Webb – they just need the will.
17 Sep 2021

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
Should investors be worried about stagflation?
US Economy

Should investors be worried about stagflation?

The latest US employment data has raised the ugly spectre of “stagflation” – weak growth and high inflation. John Stepek looks at what’s going on and …
6 Sep 2021