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Lasers: A Brief History

“When God said, ‘Let there be light’, he surely must have meant perfectly coherent light.” – Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate. 

Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Give yourself a pat on the back if you knew that is where the term “laser” comes from. Give yourself another one if you knew that in 1917 Albert Einstein was the first to theorize how to make lasers work, through a process called stimulated emission.

Looking deeper into the laser industry, we find that it took almost 50 years from Einstein’s concept to become a function. In 1960 Theodore Maiman successfully operated the first laser. It only took one more year for these lasers to begin appearing in the commercial market. In fact, by 1963 it was estimated that annual sales for the commercial laser market were exceeding $1 million.

In 1962, Fred McClung built the first Q-switching laser. His machine was capable of laser welding very small pieces such as watch springs.

Fast forward to 1974 and the first laser bar code scanner is officially used in a grocery store. The product? Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Now, in today’s world we have lasers in all facets of life. Lasers are used everywhere from lethal weapons in the military to telecommunications in outer space.

Einstein’s idea was simple: amplify light. The results of this idea? Revolutionary.

Historical Timeline
1960: Theodore Maiman operates first laser.
1961: Dr. Charles Campbell performs first laser medical treatment by removing a retina tumor from a patient.
1964: Kumar Patel invents the CO2 laser. The most powerful continuously operating laser of its time.
1966: Charles Kao discovers that light can be transmitted via glass fibers, setting the groundwork for fiber lasers. He would later receive a Nobel Prize in 2009 for this work.
1985: Bell Labs user laser light to manipulate atoms, providing insight into quantum mechanics.
2004: Approximately 734 million products containing some form of a laser are sold in the United States.
2014: The United States Navy deploys the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System. This laser is 2,500 times more powerful than typical hobby lasers.

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