Back in the 70s, the laser was characterised by Loughborough University as a ‘solution that needs a problem‘. Now fast forward a few decades and it’s difficult to think where we would be without the invention of the laser. From 3D Printing to barcodes to Blu Ray to surgery – lasers are now a commonplace, and they have undoubtedly become a necessary solution to many different problems and obstacles in science and every day life.
But who invented the laser? Well, the definitive inventor of the laser is difficult to say, as it was a combination of work by various different men. Most people agree that Charles Townes invented the laser, whilst Theodore Maiman was the first person to actually build a laser that worked. It was actually Einstein in 1917 that came up with the principal of stimulated emission of light.
Unfortunately, Charles Townes, passed away in 2015 and left a legacy behind him. So, let’s have a look at the timeline of events that led to the invention of the laser.
Laser Inventor – Timeline of Events
- 1917 – Einstein establishes the groundwork for the theoretical application of the laser and the maser (maser stands for microwave as opposed to light) in his paper On the Quantum Theory of Radiation, Einstein , which is regarded as his most influential contribution to quantum theory, based on Einstein coefficients.
- 1951 – Joseph Weber gives the earliest known lecture on the principals of the maser. Charles Townes is in the audience and talks to Weber after the presentation.
- 1953 – Townes and his students produce the first Maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).
- 1955 – Russians Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov theorize optical pumping of a multi level system, with becomes a method used for laser pumping.
- 1957 – Townes studies begin to elaborate on the maser, instead looking at the beginnings of a laser (which he called an ‘optical maser’).
- 1959 – After meeting Townes a few years earlier, Gordon Gould publishes the first paper with the term ‘laser’ in it. Although Hould filed a patent, it was awarded to the lab that Townes worked at. Gould continued to fight a 30 year legal battle until 1987, when he finally won the rights to his invention.
- 1960 – Theodore Maiman operates the first working laser in his laboratory in Malibu.
As you can see from the timeline of events, it’s extremely difficult to actually define who ‘invented’ the laser. Whilst Maiman technically made the first laser, it was based on a lot of work from Townes, so many credit Townes with being the laser inventor.
An interesting video to watch if you have the time is recorded in 1983 by Theodore (Ted) Maiman, where he recalls his concept of the laser and how he got to the point of inventing it himself.
Many considered Townes to be the true laser inventor due to his extensive work in creating the maser. Many people think that Townes became an advisor to the president after winning the Nobel prize in 1964, but this isn’t true – he was actually advisor to Harry Truman in the late 40s and early 50s too.
Aside from inventing the maser, Townes was actually part of the very first team to discover complex molecules in space.
Theodore Maiman is credited with building the first operable laser, though much of his work must have been influenced/based on the work of other physicists, he’s still credited today as the ‘laser inventor’. Maiman was working for the Hughes Aircraft Company at the time, and they announced the invention towards the end of 1960.
Maiman convinced the company to give him a budget of $50,000 to create his laser – they were happy to do so, based on his previous successful work.
Though some people assume some competitiveness or hostility between Maiman and Townes, this isn’t the case at all. In Maiman’s obituary in 2007, Townes wrote that his laser work was one of most important contributions to science.
Overall, it’s clear to see that the laser was an invention of the minds of many great men. Although statistically it’s important to know who definitively created the laser, in reality it was a combination of people who enables the laser to become what it is today.