On May 16, 1960, American physicist Theodore Maiman presents the world’s first operating laser at Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu, California. Today, lasers are present everywhere, ranging from common consumer devices such as DVD players, laser printers, and barcode scanners to professional laser devices for surgery and various other skin treatments, or in industry for cutting and welding materials. Actually, it was Albert Einstein, who has laid the theoretical foundations for the laser in his 1917 paper Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation).
Lasers have become a great part of our lives not only in technical devices, but also in the science fiction culture that would not be the same without the simulated Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Actually, the predecessor of the laser was the maser. It operated at microwave frequencies and firstly after the laser was invented, it was called an optical maser.
But, to explain the origins of the laser, we have to go back a few years. Albert Einstein published his work ‘Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung’ (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation) in 1917 in which he explained the concept of stimulated emission. In his theory, a “photon interacts with an excited molecule or atom and causes the emission of a second photon having the same frequency, phase, polarization and direction“. In the 1950’s several scientists in the United States and Russia simultaneously developed the maser despite the skepticism that spread through the scientific community. Prominent physicists like Niels Bohr or John von Neumann criticized that the maser was violating the uncertainty principle by Heisenberg and could never be working.
The next steps towards the laser were made in 1957, when infrared laser research began at Bell Labs, but soon moved on to visible light. It was then Gordon Gould just two years later to introduce the term LASER in his published work followed by years of lawsuits considering the right of the patent between Bell Labs and Gould. Finally, in 1960, Theodore Maiman was able to demonstrate the first working laser. This step depicted an important contribution to physics and beyond. After Maiman, several physicists worked on improvements of his achievement and brought the laser to what it’s capable of today. Now, numerous of laser types such as gas lasers, chemical lasers, fiber lasers or photonic crystal lasers exist, all varying in wavelengths and their applications.
Maiman himself studied at the University of Colorado and Stanford University. He was interested in technological devices at very early age, since his father was an electronics engineer and inventor. After his invention, Theodore Maiman founded a company developing and manufacturing lasers. Maiman was awarded the Wolf Prize, the Japan Prize, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice, and was induced to the inventor’s Hall of Fame. He also published ‘The Laser Odyssey‘, in which he describes the long way leading to his invention.
Theodore Maiman diet on May 5, 2007 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, at age 79.
At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy a video lecture by Mikhail Kats, talking about the history and the functions of lasers as part of a small lecture series on the 50th birthday of lasers.
References and Further Reading:
-  Maiman at the Global History Network
-  Laser Website
-  Website on Theodore Maiman
-  Universite Paris Sud website with animations, applications and research about laser and other quantum based phenomena
 Albert Einstein revolutionized Physics, SciHI Blog
-  Niels Bohr and the beginnings of Quantum Mechanics, SciHi Blog
-  John von Neumann – Game Theory and the Digital Computer, SciHi Blog
-  Theodore Maiman at Wikidata