Happy birthday, laser!

17. May 2021 | by Dr. Veit Ziegelmaier / Thorsten Naeser

On May 16, 1960, the laser was born. The device that Theodore Maiman built, still exists. Together with Ted Maiman's lab book, the historic laser is on display at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. We are honored to have the laser in house. We took the occasion of its birthday to present the small device in a video. Dr. Matthew Weidman, group leader of the attosecond metrology 2.0 team in attoworld, explains the individual components and the principle of how a laser works.

Theory and Practice

It was – like in many other fields of physics – Albert Einstein who laid the foundations for the technical development of the laser when he published his theory of stimulated emission in 1916 – 17. But it would take quite some time for his proposal to be experimen¬tally confirmed.

In 1954, the American physicist Charles Townes built the first maser, a ‘simplified’ precursor of the laser, which emitted microwave radiation (with wavelengths in the 1–m to mm range), but not visible light. The Soviet researchers Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov came up with a design for a comparable apparatus.

Modifying the maser to emit light waves in the few hundred nanome¬ter range required the use of a different architecture. Townes and his colleague Arthur Schawlow thought of adding a system of twin light-reflecting mirrors. Also Gordon Gould, an American physics student, has developed a construction plan for a photon copier, which he referred to as a ‘laser’ in his notes in 1957.

But another American, Theodore H. Maiman, won the race, when he successfully tested the world’s first functional laser on May 16, 1960.

He described the breakthrough in a manuscript that was submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters for publication. But the reviewers failed to re¬cognize the significance of his achievement, and the paper was rejected. Maiman finally published his findings in Nature. The edited version consists of two simple figures and fewer than 300 words, and — unlike many modern submissions — there is no concluding paragraph announcing the many scientific and technological advances the finding may lead to.

Maiman missed out on the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee chose to honour the pioneers of the maser, and awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics to Townes, Prokhorov and Basov. Nonetheless, he received numerous academic honours and benefited not least from his own invention when he underwent medical laser surgery in Munich in 2000.