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The Complicated Discovery of the LASER (1959)


"In 1957, Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow, then at Bell Labs, began a serious study of the infrared laser. As ideas developed, they abandoned infrared radiation to instead concentrate upon visible light. The concept originally was called an "optical maser". In 1958, Bell Labs filed a patent application for their proposed optical maser; and Schawlow and Townes submitted a manuscript of their theoretical calculations to the Physical Review, published that year in Volume 112, Issue No. 6.

"Simultaneously, at Columbia University, graduate student Gordon Gould was working on a doctoral thesis about the energy levels of excited thallium. When Gould and Townes met, they spoke of radiation emission, as a general subject; afterwards, in November 1957, Gould noted his ideas for a "laser", including using an open resonator (later an essential laser-device component). Moreover, in 1958, Prokhorov independently proposed using an open resonator, the first published appearance (the USSR) of this idea. Elsewhere, in the U.S., Schawlow and Townes had agreed to an open-resonator laser design – apparently unaware of Prokhorov's publications and Gould's unpublished laser work.

"At a conference in 1959, Gordon Gould published the term LASER in the paper The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Gould's linguistic intention was using the "-aser" word particle as a suffix – to accurately denote the spectrum of the light emitted by the LASER device; thus x-rays: xaser, ultraviolet: uvaser, et cetera; none established itself as a discrete term, although "raser" was briefly popular for denoting radio-frequency-emitting devices.

"Gould's notes included possible applications for a laser, such as spectrometry, interferometry, radar, and nuclear fusion. He continued developing the idea, and filed a patent application in April 1959. The U.S. Patent Office denied his application, and awarded a patent to Bell Labs, in 1960. That provoked a twenty-eight-year lawsuit, featuring scientific prestige and money as the stakes. Gould won his first minor patent in 1977, yet it was not until 1987 that he won the first significant patent lawsuit victory, when a Federal judge ordered the U.S. Patent Office to issue patents to Gould for the optically pumped and the gas discharge laser devices. The question of just how to assign credit for inventing the laser remains unresolved by historians.

On May 16, 1960, Theodore H. Maiman operated the first functioning laser, at Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu, California, ahead of several research teams, including those of Townes, at Columbia University, Arthur Schawlow, at Bell Labs, and Gould, at the TRG (Technical Research Group) company. Maiman's functional laser used a solid-state flashlamp-pumped synthetic ruby crystal to produce red laser light, at 694 nanometres wavelength; however, the device only was capable of pulsed operation, because of its three-level pumping design scheme. Later in 1960, the Iranian physicist Ali Javan, and William R. Bennett, and Donald Herriott, constructed the first gas laser, using helium and neon that was capable of continuous operation in the infrared (U.S. Patent 3,149,290); later, Javan received the Albert Einstein Award in 1993. Basov and Javan proposed the semiconductor laser diode concept. In 1962, Robert N. Hall demonstrated the first laser diode device, made of gallium arsenide and emitted at 850 nm the near-infrared band of the spectrum. Later, in 1962, Nick Holonyak, Jr. demonstrated the first semiconductor laser with a visible emission. This first semiconductor laser could only be used in pulsed-beam operation, and when cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures (77 K). In 1970, Zhores Alferov, in the USSR, and Izuo Hayashi and Morton Panish of Bell Telephone Laboratories also independently developed room-temperature, continual-operation diode lasers, using the heterojunction structure." (Wikipedia article on Laser, accessed 04-25-2013).