• laser-history

A History of the Laser

Max Planck



Max Planck received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918 for his discovery of elementary energy quanta.
Planck was working in thermodynamics, trying to explain why “blackbody” radiation, something that absorbs
all wavelengths of light, didn’t radiate all frequencies of light equally when heated.

In his most important work, published in 1900, Planck deduced the relationship between energy and the
frequency of radiation, essentially saying that energy could be emitted or absorbed only in discrete
chunks – which he called quanta – even if the chunks were very small. His theory marked a turning point
in physics and inspired up-and-coming physicists such as Albert Einstein.

1905: Einstein's Photoelectric Effect



1905: Albert Einstein released his paper on the photoelectric effect, which proposed that light also delivers
its energy in chunks, in this case discrete quantum particles now called photons.




1917: Stimulated Emmision Theory



1917: Einstein proposed the process that makes lasers possible, called stimulated emission. He theorized
that, besides absorbing and emitting light spontaneously, electrons could be stimulated to emit light of
a particular wavelength (for more on the pioneers of the laser, see “On the Shoulders of Giants” by Lynn

It would take nearly 40 years before scientists would be able to amplify those emissions, proving Einstein
correct and putting lasers on the path to becoming the powerful and ubiquitous tools they are today.

1951: Maser Conceived



April 26, 1951: Charles Hard Townes of Columbia University in New York conceives his maser (microwave
amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) idea while sitting on a park bench in Washington.



1954: First Maser Demonstration



1954: Working with Herbert J. Zeiger and graduate student James P. Gordon, Townes demonstrates the
first maser at Columbia University. The ammonia maser, the first device based on Einstein’s predictions,
obtains the first amplification and generation of electromagnetic waves by stimulated emission. The maser
radiates at a wavelength of a little more than 1 cm and generates approximately 10 nW of power.


1955: The Pumping Method



1955: At P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, Nikolai G. Basov and Alexander M. Prokhorov attempt
to design and build oscillators. They propose a method for the production of a negative absorption that
was called the pumping method.


1956: Microwave Solid-State Maser



1956: Nicolaas Bloembergen of Harvard University develops the microwave solid-state maser.



1957: Townes Maser Conceived



September 14, 1957: Charles Townes sketches ideas for an infrared and optical maser in his lab.




1957: Gould Laser Conceived



November 13, 1957: Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould jots his ideas for building a laser in
his notebook and has it notarized at a candy store in the Bronx. It is considered the first use of the
acronym laser. Gould leaves the university a few months later to join private research company TRG
(Technical Research Group).



1958: Optical Maser Theory



1958: In a joint paper published in Physical Review Letters, Townes, a consultant for Bell Labs, and his
brother-in-law, Bell Labs researcher Arthur L. Schawlow, theoretically show that masers could be made to
operate in the optical and infrared region and propose how this could be accomplished. At Lebedev Institute
in Moscow, Nikolai Basov and Alexander Prokhorov are also exploring the possibilities of applying maser
principles in the optical region.


1959 -1960: Laser Patents



April 1959: Gould and TRG apply for laser-related patents stemming from Gould’s ideas.

March 22, 1960: Townes and Schawlow, under Bell Labs, are granted US patent number 2,929,922 for the optical
maser, now called a laser. With their application denied, Gould and TRG launch what would become a 30-year
patent dispute related to laser invention.




1960: First Laser Constructed and Announced



May 16, 1960: Theodore H. Maiman, a physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., constructs
the first laser using a cylinder of synthetic ruby measuring 1 cm in diameter and 2 cm long, with the ends
silver-coated to make theodore-maiman-photothem reflective and able to serve as a Fabry-Perot resonator.
Maiman uses photographic flashlamps as the laser’s pump source.

July 7, 1960: Hughes Research Laboratories holds a press conference to announce Maiman’s achievement.


1960: Second Laser Demonstrated



November 1960: Peter P. Sorokin and Mirek J. Stevenson of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
demonstrate the uranium laser, a four-stage solid-state device.



1960: First HeNe Laser



December 1960: Ali Javan, William Bennett Jr. and Donald Herriott of Bell Labs develop the helium-neon
(HeNe) laser, the first to generate a continuous beam of light at 1.15 µm.



1961: Lasers Hit Commercial Market



1961: Lasers begin appearing on the commercial market through companies such as Trion Instruments Inc.,
Perkin-Elmer and Spectra-Physics.



1961: Improvements to Ruby Laser



March 1961: At the second International Quantum Electronics meeting, Robert W. Hellwarth of Hughes
Research Labs presents theoretical work suggesting that a dramatic improvement in the ruby laser
could be made by making its pulse more predictable and controllable. He predicts that a single spike
of great power could be created if the reflectivity of the laser’s end mirrors were suddenly switched
from a value too low to permit lasing to a value that could.

A high-finesse optical cavity (shown at the right) consisting of two mirrors traps and accumulates
the photons emitted by the ion into a mode. The ion is excited cyclically by an external laser and
at each cycle a photon is added to the cavity mode, which amplifies the light.  (University of
Innsbruck ©Piet Schmidt)

1961: First Neodymium Glass Laser



December 1961: American Optical Co.’s Elias Snitzer reports the first operation of a neodymium glass
(Nd:glass) laser.


1961: First Medical Use of Laser



December 1961: The first medical treatment using a laser on a human patient is performed by Dr. Charles J.
Campbell of the Institute of Ophthalmology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and Charles J. Koester of
the American Optical Co. at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. An American Optical ruby laser is
used to destroy a retinal tumor.

1962: Q-Switching



1962: With Fred J. McClung, Hellwarth proves his laser theory, generating peak powers 100 times that of
ordinary ruby lasers by using electrically switched Kerr cell shutters. The giant pulse formation technique
is dubbed Q-switching. Important first applications include the welding of springs for watches.

1962: Gallium-Arsenide Laser



1962: Groups at GE, IBM and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory simultaneously develop a gallium-arsenide laser, a
semiconductor device that converts electrical energy directly into infrared light but which must be cryogenically
cooled, even for pulsed operation.



1962: Yttrium Aluminum Garnet (YAG) Laser



June 1962: Bell Labs reports the first yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG) laser.


1962: GaAsP (gallium arsenide phosphide) Laser Diode



October 1962: Nick Holonyak Jr., a consulting scientist at a General Electric Co. lab in Syracuse, N.Y.,
publishes his work on the “visible red” GaAsP (gallium arsenide phosphide) laser diode, a compact, efficient
source of visible coherent light that is the basis for today’s red LEDs used in consumer products such as CDs,
DVD players and cell phones.

Extreme nonlinear optical techniques have succeeded in upconverting visible laser light into x-rays, making a
tabletop source of coherent soft x-rays possible. (University of Colorado)

1963: Estimated Sales $1 Million



1963: Barron’s magazine estimates annual sales for the commercial laser market at $1 million dollars.



1963: Mode-Locked Laser



1963: Logan E. Hargrove, Richard L. Fork and M.A. Pollack report the first demonstration of a mode-locked laser;
i.e., a helium-neon laser with an acousto-optic modulator. Mode locking is fundamental for laser communication
and is the basis for femtosecond lasers.



1963: Semiconductor Lasers From Heterostructure Devices



1963: Herbert Kroemer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the team of Rudolf Kazarinov and
Zhores Alferov of A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, independently propose ideas
to build semiconductor lasers from heterostructure devices. The work leads to Kroemer and Alferov winning the
2000 Nobel Prize in physics.



1964: Nd:YAG (neodymium-doped YAG) laser invented by Joseph E. Geusic and Richard G. Smith at Bell Labs.
The laser later proves ideal for cosmetic applications, such as LASIK vision correction and skin resurfacing.




1964: Townes, Basov and Prokhorov are awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their “fundamental work in the
field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the




1964: The carbon-dioxide (CO2) laser is invented by Kumar Patel at Bell Labs. The most powerful continuously
operating laser of its time, it is now used worldwide as a cutting tool in surgery and industry.




March 1964: After working for two years on HeNe and xenon lasers, William B. Bridges of Hughes Research Labs
discovers the pulsed argon-ion laser, which, although bulky and inefficient, could produce output at several
visible and UV wavelengths.




1965: At Bell Labs, two lasers are phase-locked for the first time, an important step toward optical communications.




1965: Jerome V.V. Kasper and George C. Pimentel demonstrate the first chemical laser, a 3.7-µm hydrogen
chloride instrument, at the University of California, Berkeley.




FiberOptics1966: Charles K. Kao, working with George Hockham at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, UK,
makes a discovery that leads to a breakthrough in fiber optics. He calculates how to transmit light over long
distances via optical glass fibers, deciding that, with a fiber of purest glass, it would be possible to transmit
light signals over a distance of 100 km, compared with only 20 m for the fibers available in the 1960s. Kao
receives a 2009 Nobel Prize in physics for his work.




1966: French physicist Alfred Kastler wins the Nobel Prize in physics for his method of stimulating atoms to
higher energy states, which he developed between 1949 and 1951. The technique, known as optical pumping, was
an important step toward the creation of the maser and the laser.




1966: The dye laser is discovered by Peter P. Sorokin and John R. Lankard at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research
Center in Yorktown Heights, NY.




March 1967: Bernard Soffer and Bill McFarland invent the tunable dye laser at Korad Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.




February 1968: In California, Maiman and other laser pioneers found the laser advocacy group Laser Industry
Association, which becomes the Laser Institute of America in 1972.




1970: Gordon Gould buys back his patent rights for $1 plus 10 percent of future profits when TRG is sold.




1970: Nikolai Basov, V.A. Danilychev and Yu. M. Popov develop the excimer laser at P.N. Lebedev Physical
Institute in Moscow.




1970: At Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.), Drs. Robert D. Maurer, Peter C. Schultz and Donald B. Keck
report the first optical fiber with loss below 20 dB/km, demonstrating the feasibility of fiber optics for



1970: Arthur Ashkin of Bell Labs invents optical trapping, the process by which atoms are trapped by laser
light. His work pioneers the field of optical tweezing and trapping and leads to significant advances in
physics and biology.



Spring 1970: Zhores Alferov’s group at the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Russia and Mort Panish and
Izuo Hayashi at Bell Labs produce the first continuous-wave room-temperature semiconductor lasers, paving the
way toward commercialization of fiber optics communications.




A laser in operation at the Electronics Resource Centers Space Optics Laboratory (shown to the right)
is checked by Lowell Rosen (left) and Dr. Norman Knable. They investigated energy levels of atoms in
very excited states as a step to improving the laser’s efficiency in space. The ERC opened in September
1964, taking over the administration of contracts, grants and other NASA business in New England from
the antecedent North Eastern Operations Office nasa-laser-photo(created in July 1962), and closed in
June 1970. It served to develop the space agency’s in-house expertise in electronics during the Apollo
era. A second key function was to serve as a graduate and postgraduate training center within the
framework of a regional government-industry-university alliance. Research at the ERC was conducted in
10 different laboratories: space guidance, systems, computers, instrumentation research, space optics,
power conditioning and distribution, microwave radiation, electronics components, qualifications and
standards, and control and information systems. Researchers investigated such areas as microwave and
laser communications; the miniaturization and radiation resistance of electronic components; guidance
and control systems; photovoltaic energy conversion; information display devices; instrumentation; and
computers and data processing. Although the only NASA center ever closed, the ERC actually grew while
NASA eliminated major programs and cut staff in other areas. Between 1967 and 1970, NASA cut permanent
civil service workers at all centers with one exception, the ERC, whose personnel grew annually until
its closure in June 1970. (NASA Archives)




1971: Izuo Hayashi and Morton B. Panish of Bell Labs design the first semiconductor laser that operates
continuously at room temperature.




1972: Charles H. Henry invents the quantum well laser, which requires much less current to reach lasing
threshold than conventional diode lasers and which is exceedingly more efficient. Holonyak and students at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign first demonstrate the quantum well laser in 1977.




1972: A laser beam is used at Bell Labs to form electronic circuit patterns on ceramic.




June 26, 1974: A pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum is the first product read by a bar-code scanner in a grocery store.




1975: Engineers at Laser Diode Labs Inc. in Metuchen, N.J., develop the first commercial continuous-wave
semiconductor laser operating at room temperature. Continuous-wave operation enables transmission of
telephone conversations.




1975: First quantum-well laser operation made by Jan P. Van der Ziel, R. Dingle, Robert C. Miller, William
Wiegmann and W.A. Nordland Jr. The lasers actually are developed in 1994.




1976: First demonstration, at Bell Labs, of a semiconductor laser operating continuously at room temperature
at a wavelength beyond 1 µm, the forerunner of sources for long-wavelength lightwave systems.




1976: John M.J. Madey and his group at Stanford University in California demonstrate the first free-electron
laser (FEL). Instead of a gain medium, FELs use a beam of electrons that are accelerated to near light speed,
then passed through a periodic transverse magnetic field to produce coherent radiation. Because the lasing
medium consists only of electrons in a vacuum, FELs do not have the material damage or thermal lensing problems
that plague ordinary lasers and can achieve very high peak powers.




1977: The first commercial installation of a Bell Labs fiber optic lightwave communications system is completed
under the streets of Chicago.




Oct. 11, 1977: Gould is issued a patent for optical pumping, then used in about 80 percent of lasers.




1978: The LaserDisc hits the home video market, with little impact. The earliest players use HeNe laser tubes
to read the media, while later players use infrared laser diodes.




1978: Following the failure of its videodisc technology, Philips announces the compact disc (CD) project.




1979: Gould receives a patent covering a broad range of laser applications.




1981: Arthur Schawlow and Nicholaas Bloembergen receive the Nobel Prize in physics for their contributions
to the development of laser spectroscopy.




1982: Peter F. Moulton of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory develops the titanium-sapphire laser, used to generate
short pulses in the picosecond and femtosecond ranges. The Ti:sapphire laser replaces the dye laser for
tunable and ultrafast laser applications.




October 1982: The audio CD, a spinoff of LaserDisc video technology, debuts. While ABBA's new album,
“The Visitors,” is the first to be manufactured on CD, the first CD to be released commercially is Billy
Joel's 1978 album "52nd Street."




1985: Bell Labs’ Steven Chu (now US Secretary of Energy) and his colleagues use laser light to slow and
manipulate atoms. Their laser cooling technique, also called “optical molasses,” is used to investigate the
behavior of atoms, providing an insight into quantum mechanics. Chu, Claude N. Cohen-Tannoudji, and William
D. Phillips win a Nobel Prize for this work in 1997.




1987: David Payne at the University of Southampton in England and his team introduce erbium-doped fiber
amplifiers. These new optical amplifiers boost light signals without first having to convert them into
electrical signals and then back into light, reducing the cost of long distance fiber optic systems.




1988: Nearly 30 years after his laser-building brainstorm, Gordon Gould begins receiving royalties from
his patents.




1994: The first semiconductor laser that can simultaneously emit light at multiple widely separated
wavelengths — the quantum cascade (QC) laser — is invented at Bell Labs by Jerome Faist, Federico Capasso,
Deborah L. Sivco, Carlo Sirtori, Albert L. Hutchinson and Alfred Y. Cho. The laser is unique in that its
entire structure is manufactured a layer of atoms at a time by the crystal growth technique called molecular
beam epitaxy. Simply changing the thickness of the semiconductor layers can change the laser’s wavelength.
With its room-temperature operation and power and tuning ranges, the QC laser ideal for remote sensing of
gases in the atmosphere.




1994: The first demonstration of a quantum dot laser with high threshold density was reported by
Nikolai N. Ledentsov of A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Leningrad.




1994: The single atom laser, a fundamental system in which a two-level atom is coupled to a single mode
of the optical field, is demonstrated by Michael S. Feld, Ramachandra R. Dasari, James J. Childs and
Kyungwon An at MIT's George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.




November 1996: The first pulsed atom laser, which uses matter instead of light, is demonstrated at MIT
by Wolfgang Ketterle.




January 1997: Shuji Nakamura, Steven P. DenBaars and James S. Speck at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, announce the development of a gallium-nitride (GaN) laser that emits bright blue-violet
light in pulsed operation.




1997: An engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Wind Tunnel Facility uses lasers to measure
the velocity and gradient distortion across an 8-in. curved pipe with joints and turning valves during a
cold-flow propulsion research test, simulating the conditions found in the X-33's hydrogen feedline. Lasers
are used because they are nonintrusive and do not disturb the flow like a probe would. The feedline supplies
propellants to the turbo pump. The purpose of this project was to design the feedline to provide uniform
flow into the turbo pump. (NASA Archives)




Sept. 2003: A team of researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., from NASA’s
Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., and from the University of Alabama in Huntsville successfully
flies the first laser-powered aircraft. The plane, its frame made of balsa wood, has a 1.5-m wingspan and
weighs only 311 g. Its power is delivered by an invisible, ground-based laser that tracks the aircraft in
flight, directing its energy beam at specially designed photovoltaic cells carried onboard to power the plane's

The international inertial confinement fusion community, including LLNL researchers, uses the OMEGA laser at
the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics to conduct experiments and test target designs
and diagnostics. The 60-beam OMEGA laser at the University of Rochester has been operational since 1995.




2004: Electronic switching in a Raman laser is demonstrated for the first time by Ozdal Boyraz and Bahram
Jalali of UCLA. The first silicon Raman laser operates at room temperature with 2.5-W peak output power.
In contrast to traditional Raman lasers, the pure-silicon Raman laser can be directly modulated to transmit data.




September 2006: John Bowers and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Mario Paniccia,
director of Intel’s Photonics Technology Lab in Santa Clara, Calif., announce that they have built the first
electrically powered hybrid silicon laser using standard silicon manufacturing processes. The breakthough could
lead to low-cost, terabit-level optical data pipes inside future computers, Paniccia says.




August 2007: UCSB's John Bowers and his doctoral student, Brian Koch, announce that they have built the first
mode-locked silicon evanescent laser, providing a new way to integrate optical and electronic functions on a
single chip and enabling new types of integrated circuits.




May 2009: The University of Rochester’s Chunlei Guo announces a new process that uses femtosecond laser pulses
to make regular incandescent light bulbs superefficient. The laser pulse, trained on the bulb’s filament, forces
the surface of the metal to form nanostructures that make the tungsten become far more effective at radiating
light. The process could make a 100-W bulb consume less electricity than a 60-W bulb, Guo says.




May 29, 2009: The largest and highest-energy laser in the world, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., is dedicated. In a few weeks, the system begins
firing all 192 of its laser beams onto targets.




June 2009: NASA launches the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). LOLA, the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter
on the LRO, will use a laser to gather data about the high and low points on the moon. NASA will use that
information to create 3-D maps that could help determine lunar ice locations and safe landing sites for
future spacecraft.



September 2009: Lasers get ready to enter household PCs with Intel’s announcement of its Light Peak optical
fiber technology at the Intel Developer Forum. Light Peak contains VCSELs (vertical-cavity surface-emitting
lasers) and can send and receive 10 billion bits of data per second, meaning it could transfer the entire
Library of Congress in 17 minutes. The product is expected to ship to manufacturers in 2010.



November 2009: An international team of applied scientists demonstrates compact, multibeam and multiwavelength
lasers emitting in the infrared. Typically, lasers emit a single light beam of a well-defined wavelength; with
their multibeam abilities, the new lasers have potential uses in chemical detection, climate monitoring and
communications. The research is led by Nanfang Yu and Federico Capasso of the Harvard School of Engineering and
Applied Sciences (SEAS); Hirofumi Kan of the Laser Group at Hamamatsu Photonics; and Jérôme Faist of ETH Zürich.
In one of the team's prototypes, the new laser emits several highly directional beams with the same wavelength
near 8 µm, a function useful for interferometry.




December 2009: Industry analysts predict the laser market globally for 2010 will grow about 11 percent, with
total revenue hitting $5.9 billion.




January 2010: The National Nuclear Security Administration announces that NIF has successfully delivered a
historic level of laser energy — more than 1 MJ — to a target in a few billionths of a second and demonstrated
the target drive conditions required to achieve fusion ignition, a project scheduled for the summer of 2010.
The peak power of the laser light is about 500 times that used by the US at any given time.

The artist's rendering (shown to the left) features an NIF target pellet inside a hohlraum capsule with laser
beams entering through openings on either end. The beams compress and heat the target to the necessary conditions
for nuclear fusion to occur. Ignition experiments on NIF will be the culmination of more than 30 years of inertial
confinement fusion research and development, opening the door to exploration of previously inaccessible physical
regimes. Credit is given to Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and
the US Department of Energy, under whose auspices this work was performed.




January 2010: A University of Konstanz research group, led by professor Alfred Leitenstorfer, announce they have
generated extremely short laser pulses — the duration of only one cycle of light — at the 1.5-µm wavelength used
to transmit data, an achievement that could benefit frequency metrology and ultrafast sciences such as ultrafast
optical imaging. The group combines two pulses from a single erbium-doped fiber laser source to create the single
4.3 fs pulse.




March 31, 2010: Rainer Blatt and Piet O. Schmidt and their team at the University of Innsbruck in Austria
demonstrate a single-atom laser with and without threshold behavior by tuning the strength of atom/light
field coupling.




January 27, 2014: Dr. Charles Hard Townes, whose work on stimulated emission led to the creation of lasers
and enabled the photonics industry, died Jan. 27 at age 99.




National Laser Company would like to thank Melinda Rose at Photonics Spectra for the use of their compiled Laser History. For more information about Photonics Spectra, please visit