By Patricia Daukantas
One of the highlights of the CLEO exhibit hall has been the extraordinary display of vintage lasers from all stages of the 50-year history of the technology. This exhibit has been on display earlier this year, but we still have been pleased to see it at CLEO 2010.
One of the biggest contributors to the laser-history exhibit was Robert Alan Hess, a holography consultant who is also a huge old-tech-gear buff. He told me that he acquired many of the vintage lasers through online auctions, company selloffs, and simple word-of-mouth. For a small bit of cash, more than one aging scientist in the process of home decluttering has been happy to part with an old instrument that’s been gathering dust for many years.
Of course, other people and organizations who have played important roles in laser history also lent their items to the exhibit. For example, here is a replica of Theodore Maiman’s first working ruby laser in front of his lab notebook from May 1960. Both items are on loan from his widow, Kathleen Maiman.
Here is one of the early commercial CO2 lasers from Coherent Radiation Laboratories. Under the company’s logo, somebody once attached a red label: “Gift to Schawlow Lab.”
In honor of today’s 30th birthday of the Pac-Man video game, here’s another blast from the past. On the top shelf of this display case are two laser pointers from the 1980s. They were considered “portable” because they were battery-powered and had a power switch on the side of the housing. Imagine wielding this during your next talk? These pointers must have had the heft and feel of “Star Wars” light sabers (or at least the things that the live actors used for their light-saber fights before the CGI people added in the “beams”).
Several times during CLEO Expo, Hess demonstrated a working flashlamp-pumped ruby laser that’s not much different from Maiman’s pioneering device. The ruby laser Hess was using is a commercial model that Hughes Research Laboratories—Maiman’s employer—put on the market in April 1962. Only about 100 of these lasers were manufactured and sold before technology raced ahead of the model.
Hess said his Hughes ruby laser was sold sometime in the early 1960s to Texas Instruments, which used it for sensor experiments, then declared it surplus around 1972. A man bought it and kept it, for whatever reason, until 2006, when he sold it to a laser show artist. That guy, in turn, soon put it up for auction on eBay and Hess got it.
In the photo below, Hess is using a modern He-Ne laser, hidden under the black cover, to align the optical path of the 1962 ruby laser. He will attempt to use the ruby laser pulse to punch a hole in a vintage razor blade that he found in his parents’ medicine cabinet.
Sure enough, the ruby laser punched a 120-m m-wide hole in the razor blade!
The vintage laser contained a pink ruby rod about 1.5 inches long and 3/8 inch wide, surrounded by the original helical xenon flashlamp and a diffuse white reflector. Hess isn’t sure how much life is left in the old flashlamp, but it worked every time during CLEO.
The laser history exhibit had a lot of other cool items: the first supermarket laser scanner, diode and DPSS lasers, and slabs of glass made especially for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I’m hoping that we at OPN will be able to put together an online gallery of all these photos I’ve taken during my week at CLEO.
I hope all our CLEO/QELS attendees have a safe journey home, and we’ll see you all next year in Baltimore, Maryland!
2010-05 May, CLEO/QELS, Lasers, Lasers, CLEO, Optics history