On November 14, 1967, electrical engineer Theodore Maiman received a patent for his invention of the first laser, a device for creating a high-energy beam of artificial light that would have widespread application in medicine, industry, space travel and much more.
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Maiman was one several scientists who had been in a race to create the laser. He came in first – first presenting his invention to the world in 1960 – by following a route that others had pooh-poohed, using the stimulation of atoms in an artificial ruby as the source of his laser beam.
Errant scion of Maimonides
Theodore Harold Maiman was born on July 11, 1927, in Los Angeles, and spent most of his childhood and youth in Denver, Colorado, where the family moved when his father, Abraham Maiman an engineer, took a job with the Mountain States Telephone Company. Ted’s mother was the former Rose Abrahamson.
Growing up, Ted’s father let him understand that he hoped his son would become a medical doctor. Perhaps this ambition was connected to the family’s belief that the Maimans were descendants of the 12th-century philosopher and physician Moses Ben Maimon. (During a trip to Israel in 1980, Ted Maiman told the guide who showed the tomb of Maimonides, in Tiberias, that the belief that he was their forebear was a family tradition.)
The son, however, began following in his father’s footprints quite early in life, using the electrical lab that Abe Maiman set up in their home to reverse-engineer radios and other home appliances.
By age 12, Ted had a job repairing electrical devices in a local store, and when the shop’s owner was drafted into military service during World War II, he left his teenage assistant to keep running the business.
After graduating high school, Ted volunteered for army duty himself, at the age of 17, and spent a year in the U.S. Army’s radar and telecommunications training program. Following his discharge, Maiman attended the University of Colorado, where he earned a B.S. in engineering physics. That was followed by both master’s and doctoral degrees at Stanford University, the latter in 1955, the same year his thesis adviser, Willis Lamb, received the Nobel Prize for physics.
Ray of light, ray of death
Maiman’s thesis was concerned with using microwaves to measure the changes in excited helium atoms. This later contributed to his work on the laser, a word that is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”
Lasers had been preceded by “masers,” which used microwaves to stimulate emissions of what is called “coherent light,” meaning a highly focused beam of light photons, all at the same frequency.
Maiman’s first assignment at Hughes Research Laboratories was to build a more efficient maser, which he accomplished by designing a 25-pound device to replace what at the time weighed 5,000 pounds. He then tried to convince Hughes to let him work on a laser, which physicists Charles Townes (inventor of the maser) and Gordon Gould had both, separately, described in theory in the late 1950s.
His bosses were dubious, and it was only when he threatened to quit that they agreed to give him nine months and a budget of $50,000, even in 1959 a small amount, to do just that.
As an industrial engineer, Maiman approached the problem methodically, and met the deadline, first demonstrating his laser on May 16, 1960, and publishing his results in the British journal Nature the following August. The patent was another seven years in coming, and was accompanied with legal disputes with some of Maiman’s competitors, who were at work on a laser at the same time as him.
Maiman, however, was the first to use a synthetic ruby crystal to store energy briefly, and then to release the beam, which was the first example of manmade “coherent light.” The highly focused, highly energized beam can be used in surgery and for medical scans, for reading bar codes and digital discs, and for guiding missiles, among other things.
Maiman saw the medical potential of the laser, although the press described it as a “death ray.” Although he was eventually nominated twice for a Nobel Prize for the laser, Hughes was not interested in going into producing it commercially, so Maiman went off on his own, and over the following decades, he started several companies to work on laser development.
Theodore Maiman died on May 5, 2007, in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the age of 79.