Since the late 1950s, one of the most contested issues in the science community has been that of whom to credit with the invention of the light amplifier,or laser. Designs for the laser were submitted by several prominent physicists, and many others contributed to the pool of knowledge from which those designs emerged. One thing, however, is certain: the very first working laser built in the United States was constructed by Theodore Maiman in 1960.
The son of an electrical engineer, Maiman worked his way through college by repairing appliances and other electrical devices. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1949 and pursued his Ph.D. in physics at Stanford University, graduating in 1955. It was during his stay at Stanford that Maiman learned of Charles Townes's work on masers (an acronym for Microwave Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation).
Shortly after the maser was constructed in 1954, Townes predicted that theories of coherence and stimulated emission might be applied to visible light, and it was to this end that Maiman turned his efforts. Townes's work was inspired by the hypotheses of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) who, in 1917, discussed the concept of stimulated emission in connection with his theory of relativity. When Townes proved Einstein's theories mechanically applicable to visible light, American scientists competed to produce the first working model of an optical maser. Gordon Gould is credited with designing a model as early as 1957, but he did not apply for its patent until it was too late: Townes and Arthur Schawlow (1921- ) were granted the patent for a similar design in 1958.
Nobody actually constructed the device, however, until 1960, when Maiman presented his apparatus. At the heart of Maiman's laser was a ruby cylinder, theends of which had been shorn perfectly flat and then coated with silver, so that they acted as mirrors. When excited, the atoms within the ruby rod triggered a release of energy in an internal chain reaction (called stimulated emission). Once triggered, the rod's mirrored ends would bounce the energy back and forth within the cylinder until it was strong enough to escape from one end in the form of a brief and intense red beam. Since its first appearance in1960, the laser has found applications in medicine, communications, architecture, and numerous household devices.
Laser research and development have continued to be the focus of Maiman's professional interests. After his Korad Corporation was acquired by Union Carbide in 1968, Maiman established Maiman Associates in Marina del Ray, California, to specialize in optical and laser problems. In 1972, Maiman co-founded another company, Laser Video, for the development of large-screen, laser-drivencolor video display systems. In 1976, Maiman accepted a position at TRW Electronics as vice president for advanced technology.
Maiman has been honored for his work with a variety of awards, including theBallantine Medal from the Franklin Institute, 1962, the Buckley Solid State Physics Prize from the American Physical Society, and the Fanny and John HertzFoundation Award for Applied Physical Science, both 1966, the Wood Prize from the American Optical Society, 1976, the Wolf Prize in Physics from Israel'sWolf Foundation, 1984, and the Japan Prize, 1987. Maiman has also been a member of numerous professional organizations, including the National Academy ofEngineering and the Optical Society of America.
In October 2000, Maiman published The Laser Odyssey. He has also beendirector of the Florida-based Control Laser Corporation and has served on theadvisory board of Industrial Research Magazine (now Research &Development Magazine). Maiman is currently an independent consultant andlives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.