Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lasers: A bright future achieved

I have refrained from commenting, in my blogs, on the 50th anniversary of the first working laser, an event that is being celebrated this year and as such is receiving wide publicity. I have already presented my views on this momentous scientific breakthrough at several international conferences, with two more to go in the next few weeks. Also I have contributed to several publications, other than Industrial Laser Solutions, all as overviews.

I’d like to take this space to make the event more personal. On the day in 1960 when Ted Maiman’s ground-breaking experiment became public knowledge, I was a research staff member at Raytheon’s Research Division, where we were conducting basic material studies for the company's electronics interests. Working in the Ceramics Group, I was part of a team, approached by the Microwave Devices Group, to design and build a synthetic ruby crystal growing furnace; the ultimate goal was to use these crystals as the media for an optical maser (the old term for the laser).

Raytheon and several other electronics companies were madly rushing to be the first to make this optical maser function, as theorized by many physists. The interest of Raytheon’s Research Division was to gain a share of the government funding that would flow once the device could be proven.

After Maiman’s announcement, work at the laboratory ramped up as the path to success was opened and only lack of imagination would hinder success. Raytheon went on, without me, to advance the technology and to start a commercial laser division that eventually gained acclaim with its development of Nd:YAG, a material used as the energy source for the famous SS-500 laser system, widely used for laser processing by industry in the 1970s and 80s. The pace of laser development in those early years was frenetic as lab after lab made breakthroughs, sometimes weekly. The 1960s was a golden period in R&D for inventive minds that quickly brought forth the ion laser and the CO2 laser.

Shortly thereafter, I abandoned laser technology for my first love: electron beam devices. While working for a company manufacturing industrial e-beam evaporation and welding systems, I finished the requirements for my BS by submitting a thesis on “The Laser – A Bright Future”: talk about a trite title.

Try as I might, I can’t find a copy of the thesis, which probably didn’t survive several moves. But my memory is that I tapped what little published material I could find (before Google, remember) and constructed a glowing report on how the world would be the better for this powerful light. I mentioned laser drilling and laser welding as possibilities, ideas lifted from work done at Western Electric. As I recall, my professor gave me a C+, more for grammar than for technical exposition. I often think he had no idea what I was writing about.

So there you have my modest contribution to the beginnings of laser technology. Now, after four decades of intense immersion in the industrial material processing sector of this technology, I look back at that feeble forecast I made in the 1960s about this invention's contributions to humanity and think, if only.

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