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History of Lasers 1960 - Today's Innovations

Sep 1, 2023. News


Invention of the laser

How many inventions from the early 1960s are still considered cutting-edge technology or even futuristic? Hardly any! So, why is this the case with lasers?

The answer to this question is not an easy one to find. On the one hand, there are so many fields in which we use modern lasers regularly. We use them in medicine, manufacturing, telecommunications, and even entertainment. Still, even after a decades-long history of lasers, this technology still seems like something stolen out of a Sci-fi movie.

The most straightforward answer to this question would surprise you – we expected that, by 2023, we would be using it far more.

Whenever you see an 80s movie set in the 2020s, you see laser rifles everywhere. While the concept of this technology exists, they’re still not a standard issue.

In other words, we, as a society, feel that while the invention of lasers was impressive, they still haven’t lived up to their full potential.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that their development and history are not impressive. Here’s what you need to know about the history of lasers and where they are at the moment.

Early 20th century: First concepts

The roots of lasers can be traced back to Max Planck’s theory that energy could be emitted or absorbed only in discrete chunks (quanta). This is virtually a starting date in the history of lasers.

Based on this, in 1905, a young aspiring physicist, Albert Einstein, released a paper about the photoelectric effect. He talked about how light delivered energy in chunks and called these quantum particles photons.

In 1917, Einstein talked about stimulated emission that would eventually grow into a process that made lasers possible. Next year, in 1918, Max Planck received a Nobel Prize for his discovery of quanta.

Now, so many guides start the laser history timeline in the 1960s and not the early 20th century because these ideas will take almost 40 years to get a practical application.

The 1960s: A huge milestone in the history of lasers 

So, who invented lasers?

This question is not easy to answer, but several prominent names directly lead to this technology's invention.

The basic principles behind lasers were first explored in 1954 by Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow. Townes coined the term “laser” as the abbreviation of – light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. If not for the acronym, there’s no way that lasers would ever become such a significant influence on popular culture, even with all the importance of laser technology that we recognize today.

It took a while to bear fruit, but in 1960, Theodore Maiman built the first working laser based on some of these finds. Right before this invention, Donna Strickland made a very important discovery. In 2018, she received the Nobel Prize in Physics for her pioneering development of chirped pulse amplification (CPA), a technique used to generate high-power, brief laser light pulses- and one that is still used today.

When you think of lasers, you imagine a RED beam of light. The first use of this was Maiman’s, since he chose a synthetic ruby crystal to create a beam of light. Had he used a sapphire, blue lasers would be far more predominant in Sci-Fi movies and video games. 

All jokes aside, while Maiman used a synthetic ruby crystal, the main reason for this stereotype is that most common lasers (like laser pointers and barcode scanners) use helium-neon lasers. These lasers are very often eye-safe and able to be pointed in the air without risk. 

The rest of the 20th century

Once the laser technology was out there, there was no stopping it. The biggest problem was improving the technology and using it for commercial purposes.

Still, the history of lasers in medicine is almost as old as the invention of lasers themselves. In December 1961, Dr. Charles J. Campbell used a laser on a human patient.

Early in the 1970, lasers were used to commercialize fiber optic communication. This is just the first step on this journey of a thousand steps.  

The use of lasers in physics and biology was clear from the start, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Arthur Ashkin of Bell Labs invented optical trapping that this power could have been utilized.

In 1974, the first barcode scanner (based on laser technology was used). This is another huge milestone in the history of lasers.

Somewhere in 1978, Phillips started working on CDs (compact discs). Needless to say, this would also be impossible without laser technology.

In 1985, lasers were used for atom manipulation, revolutionizing quantum mechanics research. This continued through the 80s and 90s.

The 2000s through present-day

Today, we live in a time of one of the greatest laser innovations in history. This has enabled us to transfer information at unprecedented speed, gather data about the moon's high and low points, and manufacture with a precision that would have previously been impossible.

While the early 2000s had some incredible revelations, we’ve seen major breakthroughs every several months in the last ten years.

We also need to stress out that one of the biggest events in the laser history is that of Donna Strickland, Arthur Ashkin, and Gerard Mourou, who got a Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of chirped pulse amplification. 

Why was the laser invented? While there are many reasons, transferring information was one of the principal intentions with this technology. Today, we know that there’s a potential that we could communicate with space with a connection equivalent to that of broadband internet.

NIF (National Ignition Facility) is the only place in the world to emulate conditions similar to detonating nuclear weapons. This allows for the modern Stockpile Stewardship Program. This is an integral part of the nuclear testing program, allowing the U.S. to keep its nuclear deterrent active without full-scale testing. NIF-based experiments only use a few materials, are barely visible to the human eye, and are completely safe. 

Wrap up

The history of lasers is decades (or a century-long), and it’s full of exciting breakthroughs. While the technology is used every day, it still looks like something out of a Sci-Fi. This is largely due to the perception that such an amazing concept is still to reach its peak. Most importantly, it’s our pop culture's most iconic futuristic technology. The fact that we can’t imagine the future without imagining a greater laser application already speaks volumes. 

Join us at LaserNetUS to learn more about laser technology.

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