Theodore Harold Maiman


Theodore Harold Maiman

Theodore Maiman, who demonstrated the world’s first laser in May 1960, passed away on May 5, 2007, at the age of 79.

Other groups had already started trying to build lasers when Maiman decided to tackle the problem in mid-1959. He owed his quick success to a particularly elegant design and a keen understanding of the properties of the material he used, synthetic ruby.

Small enough to fit in his hand, the ruby laser worked on the first try—a rarity in cutting-edge research made possible by Maiman’s knowledge of physics and his knack for engineering. The ruby laser changed the course of laser development; unlike the other types being developed at the time, it concentrated its power into pulses. Engineers soon tested pulsed lasers by blasting holes in razor blades and measuring their power in “gillettes” (the number of razor blades through which the laser could burn a hole). Physicists used pulsed lasers to discover new optical effects. Charles Townes, who received the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for developing the maser-laser principle, called Maiman’s laser “an important start to a tremendously important field of science and technology.”

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Denver, Colo., Maiman learned electronics from his father, Abe Maiman, an electrical engineer for AT&T Corporation. After serving in the Navy, Theodore Maiman studied engineering physics at the University of Colorado and physics at Stanford under the theoretician Willis Lamb, who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1955, months after Maiman received his doctorate.

Maiman settled at Hughes Research Laboratories, a California aerospace contractor owned by billionaire Howard Hughes. It was a hotbed of innovation, fueled by the Cold War military budget and powered by a staff of bright, intense and often colorful scientists. To keep ideas simmering, Hughes lured the famed physicist Richard Feynman from Caltech to give regular seminars.

Townes earlier had invented the maser, a microwave predecessor of the laser, at Columbia University in New York. Hughes’s managers assigned Maiman to build a more practical version of the maser using microwave emission from chromium atoms in synthetic ruby crystals. An earlier version had weighed more than two tons, but Maiman built a ruby maser that weighed only two kilograms.

Maiman then turned his attention to the laser, proposed separately by Townes and Gordon Gould. Bell Labs and the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency had funded competing million-dollar programs to build lasers, but progress had stalled on the issue of finding a material that could store energy briefly, then be stimulated to emit the energy as a beam of light. Others had dismissed using ruby, claiming it didn’t emit light efficiently enough. However, Maiman decided to see where the lost energy was going. He found that the earlier measurements were wrong.

Using his own data, Maiman calculated that he could make a marginal laser by illuminating a ruby rod with the most intense movie projector lamp on the market. Seeking a better demonstration, he decided to try exciting the laser with bright pulses of light, and his student assistant Charles Asawa suggested using a photographic flash lamp. Maiman then ordered three sizes of spring-shaped flashlamps, and started tests on the smallest. He inserted a fingertip-sized ruby rod inside the coiled lamp, then sealed the lamp and rod inside a machined aluminum cylinder.

Maiman and his assistant Irnee D’Haenens hooked up a power supply and measured pulses as they slowly cranked up the voltage. They saw the red ruby pulses suddenly grow brighter as the power crossed the threshold for producing a laser beam. It was a moment of triumph after months of intense effort.

Maiman presented an important report on the laser at an OSA meeting in fall 1960 [(paper TC1, “Stimulated optical emission in ruby,” JOSA 50, p. 1134 (Nov. 1960)]; this may have been his first description of a laser at a scientific conference.  

Maiman left Hughes less than a year after making the first laser, founding a company called Korad, which he headed for several years before being bought out. He later was a consultant for the aerospace firm TRW.

Throughout his career, Maiman received several scientific awards, including the Fannie and John Hertz Science Award, the 1983/4 Wolf Physics prize, and the 1987 Japan prize. In 1976, Maiman received OSA’s R.W. Wood Award, which recognizes outstanding discovery, scientific or technical achievement, or invention.

He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was given membership in both National Academies of Science and Engineers. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

--Jeff Hecht
This tribute is adapted from an obituary that was published May 9, 2007, in the British newspaper The Independent.