This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Share this

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

100 Second Science Your scientific questions answered simply by specialists in less than 100 seconds.

Watch now

Bright Recruits

At all stages of your career – whether you're an undergraduate, graduate, researcher or industry professional – can help find the job for you.

Find your perfect job

Physics connect

Are you looking for a supplier? Physics Connect lists thousands of scientific companies, businesses, non-profit organizations, institutions and experts worldwide.

Start your search today


Happy birthday to the laser

By Margaret Harris

Fifty years ago today, a little-known scientist working in an underfunded lab in California set off a scientific and technological revolution. On 16 May 1960, Theodore Maiman and his assistant Irnee d’Haenens succeeded in coaxing a beam of coherent light out of a flashlamp-pumped crystal of pink ruby. The laser had arrived.

Of course, the events of that day were not the whole story. Although Maiman is rightly honoured for inventing the first working laser, many others played a role in the laser’s development, both before and (particularly) after the initial breakthrough. Among the key early figures were Einstein, whose predictions about stimulated emission laid the theoretical groundwork; and Charles Townes, who invented the laser’s microwave predecessor, the maser.

To learn more about the early days of the laser, I’d highly recommend downloading Physics World’s May special issue, which you can do for free via this link. On page 23, you’ll find a great article by Pauline Rigby called “And then there was light”, which describes the events leading up to Maiman’s breakthrough and some of the controversy that followed it.

As for what happened next, I think the thing that surprised me most when I was researching the special issue was just how quickly researchers in various fields found ways of putting Maiman’s new toy to use. Barely a year after its invention, a device that d’Haenens memorably called “a solution looking for a problem” was already being used for human eye surgery.

So what will we be doing with it in 2060? Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” — but if you want to hear some experts’ views , check out “Where next for the laser?” on p53 in the downloadable pdf. You can also watch our laser video series .

Update: Pauline Rigby has written an entry on her own blog about how the article “And then there was light” came into being — including additional material from her interview with Maiman’s wife Kathleen. You can read it here

This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Comments are closed.


  • Comments should be relevant to the article and not be used to promote your own work, products or services.
  • Please keep your comments brief (we recommend a maximum of 250 words).
  • We reserve the right to remove excessively long, inappropriate or offensive entries.

Show/hide formatting guidelines

Tag Description Example Output
<a> Hyperlink <a href="">google</a> google
<abbr> Abbreviation <abbr title="World Health Organisation" >WHO</abbr> WHO
<acronym> Acronym <acronym title="as soon as possible">ASAP</acronym> ASAP
<b> Bold <b>Some text</b> Some text
<blockquote> Quoted from another source <blockquote cite="">IOP</blockquote>
<cite> Cite <cite>Diagram 1</cite> Diagram 1
<del> Deleted text From this line<del datetime="2012-12-17"> this text was deleted</del> From this line this text was deleted
<em> Emphasized text In this line<em> this text was emphasised</em> In this line this text was emphasised
<i> Italic <i>Some text</i> Some text
<q> Quotation WWF goal is to build a future <q cite="">
where people live in harmony with nature and animals</q>
WWF goal is to build a future
where people live in harmony with nature and animals
<strike> Strike text <strike>Some text</strike> Some text
<strong> Stronger emphasis of text <strong>Some text</strong> Some text