By Patricia Daukantas
CLEO knows how to throw a party!
Fifty years to the day—and roughly the hour—after Theodore “Ted” Maiman fired up the first laser, a sizable crowd of CLEO/QELS attendees listened raptly to a series of historical recollections from some of the early laser pioneers and other distinguished speakers.
If Ted Maiman had been here, of course, he would have had pride of place, but he died three years ago this month. Instead, his widow, Kathleen Maiman of Vancouver (Canada), recalled his professional focus and his personal warmth.
“Advances often flow in small steps, but with the laser, it was a quantum leap, a giant leap,” Kathleen Maiman said. She said that her husband was a maverick and a contrarian who did not buy into Arthur Schawlow’s widely believed 1959 statement that a ruby laser would not work.
“Ted believed it would be very difficult to make a laser, but not impossible,” Kathleen Maiman said. With his solid background in both physics and engineering—his father had been an electrical engineer who let the boy tinker in his lab for fun—he built a successful laser weighing just a few pounds in a project that cost Hughes Research Labs only $50,000, including salaries. Because of Maiman’s success, Ali Javan has said that IBM Corp. revived his multi-million-dollar gas laser project.
Ted Maiman disliked the headline that followed the Hughes press conference about the first laser—“L.A. Man Invents Death Ray.” Ironically, the laser has gone on to be a healing ray in ophthalmology and a helpful ray in other areas, such as driving the Internet, cutting through steel, manipulating single atoms and even amusing pet cats.
“Ted had to cast off conventional wisdom to follow his own convictions,” said Kathleen Maiman. “Ted’s ruby laser has changed the world with elegance, simplicity and practicality.”
Jeff Hecht, an author of many technology-related books and a frequent contributor to OPN, reviewed some of the early maser-related work in the 1950s. He compared Maiman’s invention to Chihiro Kikuchi’s 1957 ruby maser: it weighed 2.5 tons, required liquid-helium cooling to 4 K and was the size of a large desk.
By the time of the first Quantum Electronics Conference in September 1959—where Schawlow made his negative pronouncement about ruby as a lasing medium—people were beginning to doubt whether the laser would ever work, Hecht said. That prompted Maiman to do his own preliminary experiments with rubies, and unlike other scientists, he found that ruby’s fluorescence was nearly 100 percent.
Once Maiman assembled the components of his ruby laser, it worked the first time he tried it—“no small accomplishment in laser experiments,” Hecht said. (Or in many other scientific experiments, I might add.) Maiman’s design was a whole new approach to laser design: pulsed operation, high gain, well engineered and easy for other researchers to replicate.
OSA’s 1999 President, Tony Siegman of Stanford University—a member of the steering committee for that September 1959 conference -- reviewed some of the pre-maser developments that made masers and lasers possible, such as the invention of closed microwave cavities and the Fabry-Pérot interferometer.
“Maiman was imbued with that ‘just get it done’ spirit you find here in California,” Siegman said.
In the early 1960s, laser research progressed rapidly; Siegman paid tribute to the crucial mode calculations by Gardner Fox and Tingye Li, which suggested that curved mirrors would lower the losses in confocal cavities. Ironically, in the 1940s and 1950s, Fox had create the first microwave relay links for long-distance phone calls, and by the time he died in 1992, the laser technology on which they had worked had made those microwave relays obsolete. (Li, another OSA Past President, is still living in Colorado and skiing with his grandchildren, Siegman noted.)
When Maiman published about his first ruby laser, the scientific community was astounded because of simplicity of the components used, the characteristics of the energy levels of the laser transition, and the pulsed-by-flash-lamp type of laser excitation, said Orazio Svelto of the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.
OSA Honorary Member Nicolaas Bloembergen, a 1981 winner of the Nobel Prize for contributions to laser spectroscopy, gave a series of personal anecdotes about the early days of lasers and the people involved. He and his wife, Huberta, met Charles and Frances Townes at an award banquet, and Frances Townes showed off the ruby pendant her husband had made for her. But when Huberta Bloembergen asked her husband when he would give her a pendant made of his laser material, he had to reply: “I work with cyanide.”
I had a chance to greet Nico and Huberta Bloembergen during the coffee break. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and the pair got married 60 years ago.
2010-05 May, 2010-06 June, CLEO/QELS, Lasers, Lasers, CLEO