The First Working Laser Wows the World

50 years ago, American physicist Theodore Maiman was given a patent for the world's first laser.

Man pointing laser

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In 1960, scientists visiting Ted Maiman’s lab thought his laser device was ridiculous: “Not only were they sure on theoretical grounds that his idea couldn’t work but the contraption he had built to demonstrate it looked like something rigged up by a quack doctor to cure headaches, baldness and tired blood.”

A few years later in 1964, when The Saturday Evening Post published “The Astounding Laser,” people were a lot more excited about a device that could “burn holes through diamonds—can vaporize any known substance, in fact.”

Even though the technology was in its infancy when the Post article was written, the laser was already making an impact in numerous fields: surgeons quickly found applications for its ability to make ultra-precise incisions, and the military envisioned lasers in combat. Research power houses IBM and Bell Labs were just figuring out the laser’s awesome potential for engineering and communications. “With a laser and a microscope,” says an IBM engineer, “we may work out techniques that will help us go one step smaller.”

Lasers had come a long way in the few years since Ted Maiman had shown his first working model that used little more than a pencil-shaped ruby, a photographer’s flash unit, and an aluminum reflector. Those scientists might have scoffed at his laser in 1960, but fifty years ago today, Maiman received a patent for his world-changing invention.

Click to read “The Astounding Laser” from the October 24, 1964, issue of the Post.

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