Tech Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History

17th May 2023

Let There Be Light

On May 16th, 1960, a new kind of light existed that nobody had ever seen before. This kind of light has unique properties and doesn’t exist in nature and as far as we know, it had never existed anywhere in the universe since it began, 13.8 billion years ago.

Theodore Maiman had successfully fired the first-ever laser at the Hughes Research Laboratory, having beaten off competition from many other research teams including Bell Labs, IBM, MIT, and Columbia University.

In a way, Albert Einstein deserves some of the credit for the development too, as he laid some of the seminal theoretical foundations way back in 1917. However, in even in 1960, producing a functioning laser was deemed too far-fetched by many of Theodore’s peers and he himself was on the brink of giving up until one day a salesman from General Electric showed him some xenon flashtubes. With the largest ones being strong enough to ignite steel wool when pressed against the tube, it was exactly what Maiman needed to make his design work.

Using a synthetic pink ruby crystal grown by the Line Division at Union Carbide as an active laser medium he built the first functional laser.

Initially, the many people didn’t really understand the technology and struggled to find practical uses, having been labelled “a solution looking for a problem”.

General ignorance about the technology wasn’t helped by initial newspaper’s publishing hysterical headlines about the invention of “Death-Rays” although, perhaps ironically, one of the first uses of the ruby laser was for range-finding by the military.

Inexorably, more and more applications have been found and developed until now, whereby modern electronics would be unthinkable without lasers, where so many advances in applications across all spheres from communications to medicine simply couldn’t have happened without Maiman’s perseverance.

His confidence in his area of expertise allowed him to work through moments of doubt and bring his idea to fruition. If there’s one thing to take away from this story, it’s that we shouldn’t be too quick to abandon our ideas or strategies prematurely. Sometimes, you just need to encounter your own ‘salesman’ to shed light on what you’ve been missing, for things to click into place.