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Today We Use Lasers For Almost Everything. But They Took a Long Time to Seem Useful

After the first laser was built in 1960, it took a long time before laser products were on the mass market

The inventors of the laser probably didn't anticipate its use in things like rock shows or freaking out cats. (Mark Walker/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

“Finally, very slowly but surely, the laser is living up to its billing.”

That line opened a 1981 article in The New York Times written by a reporter named Barnaby J. Feder. At that time, the laser had been around for 21 years. It was first built by a researcher named Theodore Maiman in May 1960, and announced to the public on July 7 of that year—57 years ago today. Maiman was building on years of work by other physicists, including Charles H. Townes, who later wrote that the laser was described as “a solution looking for a problem.”

The laser had a unique quality that separated it from anything that had come before, Townes wrote: an “ability to generate an intense, very narrow beam of light of a single wavelength.” At varying intensities, that beam of light can make for a trippy rock concert, or help surgeons in accurately fixing poor eyesight. Its promise was visible to scientists, and before long, the laser was being used in STEM fields. But some knowledgeable people predicted even bigger things for the laser, writes Feder:

Experts predicted a revolution in communications, fantastic new ways to process industrial materials, answers to tricky questions about the nature of matter, miraculous surgery, and–the real eye opener for a generation that had grown up with Buck Rogers–a death ray. The laser was soon being compared to the vacuum tube, the device that spawned the transistor and the then adolescent age of electronics.

A Nobel Prize in Physics was even awarded to Townes and his collaborators Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov in 1964 for their work “in the field of quantum electronics” that produced first the maser and eventually the laser.

But uses for the laser didn’t grow to meet the hype. The maser–the conceptual predecessor to the laser, which had been invented by Townes and others–had been around since the early 1950s, and the theoretical plans for the laser had also been around for a few years. In spite of this, the 1960 scientific community was unprepared for the laser to actually be built, Townes writes. That meant it took a while for them to figure out what to do with it. By the end of that year, researchers had begun to experiment with lasers and improve on the original design. Over the subsequent decade, they continued to work with the technology in things like the “laser moon mirror project,” which began in 1969 and involved four decades of firing lasers at retro-reflectors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts.

But although lasers had a number of scientific applications, Feder wrote that the early commercial laser industry faced a number of unexpected issues. For instance, laser light wasn’t good to use for communications because it could be messed up by bad weather, while the specialist field of laser surgery took years and years to get off the ground. Other fields were hampered by public resistance and the sense that lasers might be too complicated or dangerous.

"In short, laser manufacturers discovered that for the great variety of theoretical applications, there was an equally numerous variety of demands and doubts of potential customers," Feder wrote.

That all changed, though. It just took some time–and for the technology to get more affordable. In the twenty-first century, wrote Robert D. McFadden in Townes’s 2015 Times obituary, lasers “read CDs and bar codes, guide missiles, cut steel, perform eye surgery, make astronomical measurements and carry out myriad other tasks, from transmitting a thousand books a second over fiber optic lines to entertaining crowds with light shows.” Laser pointers and things as novel as laser-cut clothes are commonplace.

The laser has become ubiquitous: today, there are many problems for which it is the solution.

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