When 32-year-old engineer Theodore Maiman first produced a pulse of concentrated light from a ruby crystal in 1960, he probably never imagined the impact that his invention would have many years later. The laser turns fifty in 2010, and it has come a long way since these humble, experimental beginnings.
Initial reactions to Mainman’s invention were greeted with skepticism and even alarmist cries of the invention of a “death ray”, a common element of 1960s science fiction B-movies. But today, the laser has affected almost every aspect of modern life. Lasers are used to cut with microscopic precision, send information at high speeds, and perform precise measurements.
Although the theoretical idea of lasers existed as early as 1917, Mainman’s successful implementation of these theories didn’t find its footing in practical application right away. It took until 1975 when lasers were implemented in barcode scanner solutions for supermarkets for their impact on society to begin. The first item ever scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Later, applications to weaponry and energy use followed; self-targeting bombs, sniper rifles, and nuclear energy research are all fields that rely heavily on laser technology.
The big breakthrough came in 1962 when a small, laser producing device was manufactured to become the basis for most small commercial lasers existing today. Since then, over 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded for laser research. Lasers have found their way into the modern world of computing with CD and DVD players and the possibility of extra-fast lasers that allow for extremely dense storage of data. This research could increase present speeds for data retrieval by up to 100,000 times!
There are still lots of applications to be fully explored with lasers. David Hanna, a professor at University of South Hampton in England puts it succinctly, "Their possibilities will not be fully digested or exhausted for a very long time to come."