LASER History

Posted by Jaclyn Baldwin on

Inventors. We are surrounded by them and their creations. 

They are the ones with a critical eye and a querying "why" on their lips. The ones that simply do not accept “no” or “not possible” as an answer to a problem. They are often the ones that recognize a limitation and seek to reduce or eliminate it. 

For those of us in the maker universe that use C02 and fiber lasers daily to create, innovate and invent, we have the questioning minds of a few engineers and physicists to thank. 

The laser, more formally known as “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” was made possible by the early work of Charles Townes, a physicist at Bell Laboratories and professor at Columbia University. Despite naysayers who didn't believe it could be done, Townes defied expectations and developed the MASER - microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation - in 1953.

Townes soon moved on to collaborate with his brother-in-law, Arthur Schwalow to take the MASER to the next level - light amplification. While they did not create an actual prototype, they set the scientific community into a frenzy in 1958 with their paper Infrared and Optical Masers which described their theory. 

Two years later, Theodore Maiman created the first operational ruby laser. In much the same way as Townes, Maiman was also told that the idea would never work, but wasn’t discouraged. 

As is the case with many inventions (cars, computers and cellphones to name a few) the innovations and improvements developed quickly.  A few short years later, in 1963, the first C02 laser was developed at Bell Labs by Kumar Patel. The first laser had a power rating of one milliwatt. Fast forward to 1967 and the C02 lasers on the market exceeded 1,000 watts. 

In 1979, Prima Industrie introduced a 3-D laser cutter and by the 1980s, smaller, less expensive lasers were available for not just metals, but plastics, silicone and more. 

Laser technology is now easier than ever to access with many schools and libraries providing access to patrons and students. Many communities are also experiencing a growth in local makerspaces and groups. Companies are also working to meet the demand for smaller, inexpensive hobby lasers that make it much easier to break into the laser cutting and engraving business without a huge start-up cost.

The barriers to bringing products and ideas to the market are slowly eroding. The ease of dissemination with social media, setting up websites and shops like Etsy, determined crafters and inventors are able to release ideas to broader audiences and more readily share their products.

The biggest obstacle is sometimes your own doubt, or that of others. Townes and Maiman, and countless others over the course of history were advised to quit, faced scorn and opposition, but never waivered. This May, as we recognize and celebrate the contributions of inventors, let's all be like Townes and Maiman.

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