A Brief Laser History

Before we continue with the how and the what of lasers, we need to take a step back and briefly look at the history of this remarkable technology.  We found an old, but pleasantly brief and easy-to-follow description of where the technology came from, which we’ll share an updated version of here:

LASER is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”

Albert Einstein first explained the theory of stimulated emission in 1917, which became the basis of the laser. He postulated that, when the population inversion exists between upper and lower levels among atomic systems, it is possible to realize amplified stimulated emission, and the stimulated emission has the same frequency and phase as the incident radiation. However, it was in the late 1940s and 1950s that scientists and engineers did extensive work to realize a practical device based on the principle of stimulated emission.  Notable scientists who pioneered the work included Charles Townes, Joseph Weber, Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolai G. Basov.

Initially, the scientists and engineers were working towards the realization of a maser (“Microwave Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation”), a device that amplified microwaves for immediate application in microwave communication systems and does not use a visible light. Townes and the other engineers believed it to be possible to create an optical maser, a device for creating powerful beams of light using higher frequency energy to stimulate what was to become termed “the lasing medium.” Despite the pioneering work of Townes and Prokhorov, it was left to Theodore Maiman in 1960 to invent the first true laser, using ruby as a lasing medium that was stimulated using high energy flashes of intense light.

The development of lasers marked a turning point in the history of science and engineering. It produced a completely new type of system with the potential for applications in a wide variety of fields. During the 1960s, a lot of work had been carried out on the basic development of almost all the major laser types, including high-power gas dynamic and chemical lasers. Almost all the practical applications of these lasers in defense, as well as in industry, were also identified during this period. The motivation of using the high-power lasers in strategic scenarios was a great driving force for the rapid development of these high power lasers in the midst of the Cold War. In the early 1970s, a megawatt-class carbon dioxide gas dynamic laser was successfully developed and tested against typical military targets. The development of chemical lasers, free electron, and X-ray lasers took a slightly longer time because of the involvement of multidisciplinary approaches.

The major steps of advances or breakthroughs in laser research are given below:

1917: Einstein, A. – Concept and theory of stimulated light emission.

1948: Gabor, D. – Invention of holography.

1951: Townes, C.H., Prokhorov, A., Basov, N.G., Weber, J. – The invention of the maser at Columbia University, Lebedev Laboratories, Moscow, and the University of Maryland.

1956: Bloembergen, N. – Solid-state maser- [proposal for a new type of solid state maser] at Harvard University.

1958: Schawlow, A.L. and Townes, C.H. – Proposed the realization of masers for light and infrared at Columbia University.

1960: Maiman, T.H. – Realization of first working laser using rubies at Hughes Research Laboratories.

1961: Javan, A., Bennet, W.R. and Herriot, D.R. – First gas laser: helium-neon (He-Ne laser) at Bell Laboratories.

1961: Fox, A.G., Li, T. – Theory of optical resonators at Bell Laboratories.

1962: Hall, R. – First semiconductor laser (gallium-arsenide laser) at General Electric Labs.

1962: McClung, F.J and Hellwarth, R.W. – Giant pulse generation / Q-switching.

1962: Johnson, L.F., Boyd, G.D., Nassau, K and Sodden, R.R. – Continuous wave solid-state laser.

1964: Geusic, J.E., Markos, H.M., Van Uiteit, L.G. – Development of first working Nd:YAG laser at Bell Labs.

1964: Patel, C.K.N. –  Development of CO2 laser at Bell Labs.

1964: Bridges, W. – Development of argon ion laser a Hughes Labs.

1965: Pimentel, G. and Kasper, J.V.V. – First chemical laser at University of California, Berkley.

1965: Bloembergen, N. – Wave propagation in nonlinear media.

1966: Silfvast, W., Fowles, G. and Hopkins – First metal vapor laser – Zn/Cd – at the University of Utah.

1966: Walter, W.T., Solomon, N., Piltch, M and Gould, G. – Metal vapor laser.

1966: Sorokin, P. and Lankard, J. – Demonstration of first dye laser action at IBM Labs.

1966: AVCO Research Laboratory, USA. – First gas dynamic laser based on CO2

1970: Nikolai Basov’s Group – First excimer laser at Lebedev Labs, Moscow, based on xenon (Xe) only.

1974: Ewing, J.J. and Brau, C. –  First rare gas halide excimer at Avco Everet Labs.

1977: John M.J. Madey’s Group –  First free electron laser at Stanford University.

1977: McDermott, W.E., Pehelkin, N.R., Benard, D.J., and Bousek, R.R. – Chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL).

1980: Geoffrey Pert’s Group – First report of x-ray lasing action, Hull University, UK.

1984: Dennis Matthew’s Group – First reported demonstration of a “laboratory” X-ray laser from Lawrence Livermore Labs.

1999: Herbelin, J.M., Henshaw, T.L., Rafferty, B.D., Anderson, B.T., Tate, R.F., Madden, T.J., Mankey II, G.C., and Hager, G.D. – All gas-phase chemical iodine laser (AGIL).

2001: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – Solid-state heat capacity laser (SSHCL).


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