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Theodore Maiman, Inventor of the Laser

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Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Theodore Maiman, who died at 79 in 2007. 

Without Theodore Maiman, Captain Hammer might still be with Penny. Han Solo might have turned to hokey religions and ancient weapons, as he wouldn’t have had a blaster at his side. When things got tense, Captain Kirk wouldn’t have had anything to set on stun. Goldfinger would have been forced to find a faster way of slicing James Bond in half. Dr. Evil wouldn’t have had to find something else to strap onto sharks. And the letters “CHA” wouldn’t still be carved on the moon. The point is, when Theodore Maiman invented the laser, he gave us countless hours of great science fiction, and a way to read those little silver discs they’re printed on. At Retrobituaries, we look at the lives of the insufficiently celebrated. Here are a few reasons to celebrate the life of Theodore Maiman. 

1. He was a self-starter. (More on this in a moment.)

His father, Abe Maiman, was an electrical engineer and inventor, and kept a lab in his house. There, the young Theodore tinkered with projects and came to understand how electrical devices work. At 12, Theodore got a job as a repairman at a local appliance store. After high school, he did a stint in the Navy, where he worked with communications and radar equipment. He would eventually enroll in the University of Colorado, studying engineering physics, and earned his graduate degrees at Stanford. (His Master of Science was in electrical engineering; his doctorate was in physics.) 

2. He was the Steve Jobs of the maser world.

I know that some of you are salivating to point out that my inclusion of phasers in the opening paragraph is an error, because on Star Trek, the weapon is not a laser, but rather a photon maser. “But wait,” I reply, “You are discounting the contributions of Dr. Maiman to the maser world as well!” In 1956, he found a job at Hughes Atomic Physics Department, where he directed the ruby maser project. There, he took a good look at the 5000-pound maser and thought he could improve it. A lesser scientist would have settled for a 500-pound maser. Some might have called 50 pounds a good day’s work. But Theodore Maiman not only improved the maser’s performance, but reduced it to a mere 25 pounds. “I was not obsessed with practicality,” he wrote. “I was obsessed with simplicity.” By the time he left the project, he had the maser down to a svelte five pounds.

(If you want to quibble over whether a blaster from Star Wars is a laser, here’s a good point of reference.) 

3. Impossible was his starting point.

Over at Westinghouse Research Laboratories, physicist Irwin Wieder’s laser project was attempting to use ruby crystals to produce a laser, but found little success. According to their experiments and calculations, it just wasn’t possible to pump sufficient energy into rubies that they might emit light. Over at Hughes Laboratories, Maiman disagreed. His calculations said just the opposite, and he was going to prove it.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “It was time to confirm or deny all the fears of why the ‘ruby can't work’; Or, why ‘lasers can't be made to work.’ No more new calculations, no more diversionary experiments. This was the moment of truth!” He and a lab associate started the experiment, performing initial runs and increasing energy input while recording light output. “When we got past 950 volts on the power supply, everything changed! The output trace started to shoot up in peak intensity and the initial decay time rapidly decreased. Voila. This was it! The laser was born!”

The laser’s birthday is May 16, 1960. 

4. Maiman’s experience with editors is not unlike my own. (Excluding my editors at mental_floss, of course.)

Inventing the laser was a pretty big deal with enormous consequences, and like a good scientist, Dr. Maiman submitted his findings to Physical Review Letters, a respected scientific journal. “Within just two days,” Maiman later wrote, the journal’s editor sent him “a curt reply of rejection.” In short, the editor called Maiman’s unprecedented findings old news. Maiman, undaunted, submitted his findings to the highly regarded and incredibly selective Nature, which went on to publish Maiman’s report. Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on masers and lasers, called Maiman’s submission “the most important per word of any of the wonderful papers” in Nature’s century of publishing.

5. He really wanted to be a comedian.

Tinkering in his dad’s shop was nice and all, but it wasn’t Theodore Maiman’s original calling. As a young man, his plan when he grew up was to be a comedian. It makes you wonder what George Carlin would have invented if he’d given up on comedy. 

6. He had a Bill O’Reilly Moment.

Early on, the word from other laboratories was that attempting to build a laser was a fool’s errand. Such reports made the pointy-headed bosses at Hughes nervous. When Maiman first approached them with the idea of building a laser, he met resistance. By “resistance,” I mean they told him no. Maiman had a Bill O’Reilly freakout, and said that if they weren’t going to support his laser project, he’d quit and build the thing in his garage. 

7. He knew how to stretch a buck.

While other laboratories spent millions of dollars to build the first laser, at Hughes Laboratories, Maiman did the job with a mere $50,000.

8. Voila! A laser. Now what?

After Maiman invented the laser, Hughes Laboratories lost interest. What possible use could there be for a laser, anyway? Maiman himself called lasers “a solution seeking a problem," but grew frustrated at the shortsightedness of Hughes’s management. Eventually, he quit and formed Korad Corporation. Later, he founded Maiman Associates. His companies were devoted to the development, refinement, and application of laser technologies.

9. He died from systemic mastocytosis.

The extent of my medical training is having seen every episode of House, but I’ll give defining systemic mastocytosis a go. Basically, you’ve got systems of cells in your body that support and surround organs and “organized” tissues. These cells are called mast cells. If you’ve got bones or blood, for example, you’ve got mast cells. Systemic mastocytosis is when the body goes haywire and produces an excess of mast cells, which, when triggered, overwhelm the body. The result, depending on the severity of the disease, varies from flushed skin to severe organ damage. Dr. Maiman suffered from the bad kind, and died in 2007.

10. The world’s first laser is in Vancouver.

The laser Dr. Maiman invented is still around. After his death, the Maiman estate took steps to safeguard it. At last report, it was placed in a safe deposit box at a bank in Vancouver, Canada. It’s in a white box wrapped in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, and written on the outside in red marker are the words: “Maiman’s laser.”

Previously on Retrobituaries: Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House. See all retrobituaries here

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Haruo Nakajima, the Original Actor Beneath the Godzilla Suit
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Haruo Nakajima (second from left) during the filming of Godzilla Raids Again (1955).
Wikipedia // Public Domain

If you can’t picture actor Haruo Nakajima’s face, that’s because his most famous movie role had him hidden inside a monster costume. The Japanese performer—who played cinema’s most famous reptilian beast, Godzilla, in both the 1954 original film and 11 sequels—died on August 7, 2017 at the age of 88 from pneumonia, but not before giving the world a glimpse of the man beneath the scaly suit.

Nakajima was born on January 1, 1929, in Yamagata, Japan. As the third of five children, he knew he wouldn't inherit his father's butcher shop (which traditionally went to the eldest son), so he enrolled in an acting program at the age of 18 after working for a brief period as a truck driver for the occupying Allied forces.

Nakajima launched his movie career by working as a stuntman in samurai movies. His most famous bit part was in Akira Kurosawa’s famous 1954 adventure-drama Seven Samurai, but his big break occurred while filming the 1953 World War II military film Eagle of the Pacific.

The script required Nakajima to jump from a burning plane, and when director Ishirō Honda saw him in action, "he thought, 'This guy is full of energy,'" the actor recalled to Great Big Story in March 2017. “They came to see me as someone who had guts, and I think that’s why they wanted me for the role of Godzilla.”

In the original 1954 Godzilla film, underwater hydrogen bomb testing disturbs an ancient sea creature from its aquatic habitat, and the beast proceeds to wreak havoc upon mainland Japan. Since Nakajima initially had no idea what the titular monster would look like or how it would move, he prepared for his role in an unusual way.

“I spent 10 days at the zoo,” Nakajima later recalled, according to Jonathan Clements’s book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. “I’d watch the way the elephants walked, the monkeys, the gorillas, but especially the bears. I used to take two lunches with me. One was mine, and the rest of it I’d throw to the bears. When one of them snatched it up and shoveled it into his mouth, I’d watch the way he did it.”

Not that it was easy to move in the Godzilla suit. The original costume was made from ready-mixed concrete (rubber was a scare commodity in post-war Japan) and reportedly weighed around 220 pounds. It was also suffocatingly hot: Nakajima sweated so much beneath the soundstage’s bright lights that by day’s end he said he could fill half a bucket with perspiration wrung from his undershirt.

When Godzilla first arrived in movie theaters in 1954, an anonymous Nakajima watched the film from the front row to gauge the audience's reaction. "When the film was a success I was so surprised," he told Great Big Story. "I was so happy."

Nakajima starred in Godzilla movies for most of the next two decades. He also appeared in dozens of other monster movies as a contract actor for Japanese film studio Toho, which created the Godzilla franchise. But after filming Godzilla vs. Hedorah in 1971, Nakajima's exclusive contract wasn't renewed, and he donned the scaly suit just one last time for 1972's Godzilla vs. Gigan. The actor retired in 1973, and spent his remaining years attending comic cons and movie conventions, making the occasional Godzilla film cameo, and running a Toho-owned mahjong parlor.

Even though Nakajima enjoyed a successful career, he would never experience international fame: "Back then, people didn't speak positively of suit actors," Nakajima told Japanese magazine Josei Seven in 2014, according to Kotaku. "There'd be whispers going around that working inside [a suit] is not an acting job."

Yet the Godzilla franchise became a worldwide phenomenon. The films ushered in a new era of sci-fi monster movies, and after World War II, they served as a campy—yet palpable—reminder of the dangers of nuclear combat.

As for Nakajima himself, “there are not a lot of actors that you can compare him to,” Akira Mizuta Lippit, a cinematic arts professor at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Post after Nakajima’s death. “He, in fact, invented the kind of acting that he then performed. In that sense, he’s absolutely unique."

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Queen Christina, Who Ruled as a King
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When is a queen not a queen? When she's technically a king.

Christina of Sweden was one of Europe's most unusual monarchs, an intellectual ruler and patron of the arts known for flouting convention at every turn. The decisions she made about her rule, her religion, and her relationships shocked 17th century Europe—and have yet to be forgotten today.

"SHE HAS MADE FOOLS OF US ALL!"

Princess Christina of Sweden caused a stir from day one. Not only was she born during a planetary conjunction in 1626, causing the court’s astrologers to predict that the baby would grow up to be one of Sweden’s greatest princes, she was also, as she later wrote, born “entirely covered with hair” and cried with a “deep, loud voice,” causing her to be mistaken for a boy. Although her mother was disappointed to realize that the newborn was in fact a girl, and Christina herself wrote that the confusion “filled the palace with false joy,” her father, King Gustav II, was delighted. “She’ll be clever! She has made fools of us all!” he proclaimed.

Things got more unorthodox from there. Gustav made Christina his heir before he left for Germany to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, although the official title she was set to inherit was King, not Queen, of Sweden (Swedish law only recognized kings; there was no official status for queens). Accordingly, her father decreed that she should receive the education of a prince. Christina threw herself into her studies, rising at dawn for her lessons in classical Greek and Latin, theology, politics, and philosophy. She also learned fencing, hunting, horse riding, and other sports and games traditionally reserved for boys, as well as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. As an adult, she became one of the best-educated women in Europe.

King Gustav II died on the battlefield in 1632, when Christina was five, making her the Queen (technically King) of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals. Because her mother was seen as mentally unstable, her father had decreed that in the event of his death Christina should be cared by her paternal aunt, Catherine of Sweden. Indeed, the Dowager Queen’s condition was so dire that she refused to bury Gustav’s body for 18 months, regularly visiting and petting the putrefying corpse. Sweden’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, finally stepped in, ordering the body buried in Riddarholm Church (the resting place of Swedish kings), exiling the widow to another castle, and sending Christina to live with her aunt until she reached the age of majority.

THE GIRL KING

Oxenstierna ruled in Christina’s stead until she was 18, although she began attending council meetings at 14. Despite receiving lessons in politics from him personally, Christina clashed often with Oxenstierna, particularly regarding the Thirty Years’ War. When Oxenstierna sent his son to the Peace Congress in Westphalia to seek a hard line on negotiations, for example, Christina sent her own delegate to oppose him, seeking peace at any cost.

It’s episodes like this that cause some to describe Christina as a brilliant ruler and others as a complete disaster. Sources do agree that she invested so much money into her vast art collection that it seriously impacted the country’s economy, and in general she displayed little financial skill—she was notorious for giving away land belonging to the crown and showering her favorites in lavish finery. But she’s also credited with preventing civil war in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and its leftover rivalries, and her reign saw many progressive firsts, such as the establishment of the first newspaper in Sweden, in 1645.

But if Christina’s rule was controversial, her appearance and demeanor got even more attention. She wore a signature mop of unruly curls, which she rarely brushed, and regularly offended people with her blunt, unfiltered way of speaking. She was known across Europe for her blazing wit and keen intelligence—but just as well for her barroom manners and love of a dirty joke. Queen Christina, it has been said, “walked like a man, sat like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldier.”

Also eyebrow-raising was Christina’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre, with whom she spent most of her free time. The young queen waxed endlessly on Sparre’s brilliance and beauty, addressing her as “la belle comtesse” and referring to Sparre as her “bed-fellow.” Upon introducing the countess to an English ambassador, Christina candidly informed him that Sparre’s "insides were as beautiful as her outsides.”

Ebba Sparre as painted by Sébastien Bourdon
Ebba Sparre as painted by the artist Sébastien Bourdon
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Most scandalous of all, though, was the issue of Christina’s flat-out refusal to marry. In her autobiography, she wrote of “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” As she became a teen, she began expressing great curiosity about Elizabeth I of England—the so-called Virgin Queen—as well as Catholic vows of celibacy. She informed her council: "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”

Christina knew that she was expected to provide an heir, though, and she did play along for a while. When she was 16, she became secretly engaged to her first cousin, Charles Gustav, who was in love with her, before he went off to war for several years. But by the time he returned, the deal was off, and Christina resisted all future attempts by her advisors to have her married. In 1649, at age 22, she named Charles Gustav as her heir.

Two years later, Christina began making noise about abdicating and leaving her cousin in charge. She claimed that Sweden needed a man to rule and especially to lead the army, and also cited her heavy workload, bad eyesight, neck pain, and other physical ailments as reasons to forfeit the throne. Oxenstierna objected to this plan, as did her council. But another of her reasons eventually emerged: The queen had decided to convert to Catholicism. That was a serious no-no in Lutheran Sweden, partly because the Holy Roman Empire had been the main belligerent party in the recent Thirty Years’ War.

"GOD CREATING THE FIRST MAN"

After waffling back and forth for a few years, the Riksdag, Sweden's representative assembly, ultimately gave in and allowed Christina to resign in June of 1654, after 10 years’ rule, and accepted Charles Gustav as her successor. She was 28 years old. Christina later wrote that succeeding in her plan to make Charles king made her feel “like God creating the first man.”

At Christina's abdication ceremony, her royal regalia was methodically removed by the great officers of the realm in turn. Although they obliged in taking her sword, key, orb, and sceptre, an officer named Per Brahe, who was tasked with removing the crown, refused—in the end, she had to remove it herself.

When the ritual was over, Christina wore only an unadorned white taffeta dress. She made an impassioned speech, thanking God and her subjects, and asked Charles to take a seat in the silver throne she’d just vacated. Charles made a show of declining, then escorted her to her apartments. Christina left Sweden within a couple days. Her ultimate destination: the Vatican.

A painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
A 1650 painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
National Museum of Sweden // Public Domain

After chopping off her hair and riding south through Denmark disguised as a man for safety, Christina was eventually taken in by the Habsburg archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria at his palace in Brussels, where she converted to Catholicism in a secret ceremony. She then continued to Innsbruck, where she was received by another Catholic Habsburg archduke, Ferdinand Charles. There, on November 3, 1655, she announced her conversion to Catholicism in the city’s Hofkirche (the court church). Ferdinand Charles, who was as notorious as Christina for his extravagant tastes and terrible money management skills, threw a multi-day party for her. By the time she left for Italy five days later, her visit had nearly financially ruined him.

Now that word of Christina’s newfound Catholicism was afoot, the Vatican transformed this last leg of her journey into an all-out PR tour, with festivities held for her in five cities along her route. Six months after she left Uppsala, she landed in Rome, where Pope Alexander VII welcomed his prize convert with an opulent reception featuring 6000 onlookers and a procession of camels and elephants.

Once in Rome, 29-year-old Christina wasted no time in inspiring local gossip. Almost immediately, she began socializing with men her age, striking up a particularly close relationship with the young Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a code-breaker and one of the leaders of the liberal Squadrone Volante (Flying Squad) movement, which aspired to combat nepotism in the papal conclaves.

Rumors quickly emerged that Christina and Cardinal Azzolino were having a lusty affair. Almost as quickly, Alexander VII noticed the talk and asked them to limit the time they spent together. When that didn’t squelch the chatter, Azzolino was shipped off to Romania as punishment. Christina wrote him dozens of ardent letters, some in French, others in a code that the two had devised. Distance couldn’t keep them apart, though, and they remained lifelong friends, to meet again many years later.

THE WOULD-BE QUEEN OF NAPLES

In the summer of 1656, Christina traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV with the goal of becoming Queen of Naples. French-Italian politician Jules Mazarin was aiming to free Naples from Spanish control and transform it into a semi-independent, pro-French monarchy, and Christina, who sought financial independence from the pope, was an attractive candidate as a leader. Christina was not welcomed as warmly in Paris as she had hoped, though—Parisians were shocked by her open, unscrupulous demeanor and androgynous style, and she was criticized for the way she sat with her legs crossed, put her feet on theatre seats, and laughed at inappropriate times. It was whispered that she made advances toward more than one French noblewoman, too.

An engraving of Jules Mazarin around 1650
Jules Mazarin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christina still managed to charm the Sun King enough that she felt she had his approval to rule the Neapolitans (the extent of his true approval is somewhat debated). But on her way to Naples, her entourage received news that the city had been ravaged by the bubonic plague, and so she was forced to abandon the plan and head back to France. She was granted apartments by the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris.

Fontainebleau was the scene of another great scandal, one that seemed only slightly less shocking to Europe than her abdication. For months, Christina had suspected her master of the horse, the marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, of sharing her plan to become Queen of Naples with the Holy See. As such, she’d been seizing his letters, in which she claimed to have found concrete proof of his betrayal. She ordered him to appear before her at the palace to answer for himself. Monaldeschi denied the charges, but Christina remained unmoved and sentenced Monaldeschi to death.

One of the palace’s priests, Father le Bel, was appointed to receive Monaldeschi’s pre-execution confession. Afterwards, the horrified priest begged Christina on his knees not to have the death sentence carried out. But his pleas were fruitless, and members of Christina’s entourage began chasing Monaldeschi around Christina's apartments at the palace. Eventually, Monaldeschi was stabbed in the stomach by one Ludovico Santinelli, but his pursuers quickly discovered he was wearing chain-mail. They then stabbed Monaldeschi in the face, before killing him with blows to the neck.

Christina paid a monastery to say masses for Monaldeschi at his burial and washed her hands of the matter, expressing no regret. She later said she was only “sorry that she had been forced to undertake this execution,” and added that “justice had been carried out for his crime and betrayal.” Rather than asking for forgiveness herself, she asked God to forgive Monaldeschi.

This was not a good look for Christina. The marchese hailed from a powerful family that was close with the papacy, and her unapologetic attitude added insult to injury. The Romans were infuriated, viewing the incident as nothing but a straight-up murder, and French public opinion was little better.

Mazarin advised her to just blame the whole thing on Santinelli, the man who'd done the stabbing, but Christina refused, asserting full responsibility for Monaldeschi’s death. She argued that it was a perfectly legal thing to do, as she had judicial rights over all members of her court as the queen regnant of Sweden, which she continued to call herself despite her abdication.

There were consequences, however. By then Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, was eager for France to be rid of the ex-queen and her freshly stained reputation, so Christina had to leave town. Although she’d planned to visit England next, her trip was discouraged by Oliver Cromwell, thanks to the Monaldeschi murder scandal and general anti-Catholic sentiment. In May of 1658, she reluctantly went back to Rome, where she knew an unhappy audience awaited.

The pope wanted nothing to do with her. Once her greatest champion and benefactor, Alexander VII hung back at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and made it clear that visits from Christina were not welcome. He later described her as “a woman born of a barbarian, barbarously brought up and living with barbarous thoughts [...] with a ferocious and almost intolerable pride.” Her popularity among the Romans had vanished as well. She’d gone from one of the Holy See’s most touted treasures to a tarnished embarrassment in just three and a half years.

Since the pope had cut her off, the politician Mazarin let Christina stay at his place in Rome for a while. The following summer, Cardinal Azzolino saved the day, arranging for her to move into Palazzo Riario, safely across town from the Vatican, where she once again held salons with Europe’s most esteemed artists and intellectuals. Azzolino also set her up with new servants, including a replacement for Santinelli, Monaldeschi’s disgraced executioner.

PROTECTRESS OF THE JEWS

After the scandal, Christina drifted around Europe for a few years, moving between Rome, Antwerp, and Hamburg, until Pope Alexander VII died in 1667. The new pope, Clement IX, had been installed by Azzolino’s nepotism-fighting Squadrone Volante. He was an ally of Christina’s, having been a guest at her home many times. Christina was in Hamburg when she heard the news, and was so thrilled that she tactlessly hung banners of celebration in the town. She also held a giant party at her rented mansion, replete with wine-flowing fountains—to the outrage of the Protestant population of Hamburg, who did not tolerate Catholics well. Furious locals stormed the house in an attempt to capture her, and the party ended with a riot, eight deaths, and Christina escaping out the back door in disguise.

Back in Rome, Christina occasionally locked horns with Pope Clement IX, demanding that he outlaw the chasing of Jews in the streets as part of Rome’s Carnival customs—a festival fixture since the 1400s. In August of 1686, she wrote to Pope Innocent XI to appoint herself the Protectress of the Jews of Rome, signing her declaration as la Regina (the Queen). She also established her own theatre, Tor di Nona. However, after Clement IX died, the next two popes, Clement X and his successor Innocent XI, were not friends of the theatre, with the latter forbidding women from acting, singing, or wearing low-cut gowns. Christina cheerfully ignored his laws, continuing to hire actresses in her playhouse.

Christina's tumultuous life came to an end on April 19, 1689, when she was 62. Scholars think she may have died from a combination of diabetes mellitus, a streptococcus bacterial infection, and pneumonia. Cardinal Azzolino was at her bedside at the end, and she named him her heir. Although she’d requested a simple burial in Rome’s Pantheon, the pope embalmed and displayed her—wearing a silver mask and covered in jewels and furs—in the Palazzo Riario for four days. She was buried in the Vatican’s Grotto, one of only three women who have held the honor.

Since her death, Christina has been portrayed on the stage and the screen in dozens of productions, most notably by Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the not-very-accurate Queen Christina (1933). The Girl King, released in 2015, comes slightly closer to the truth, but still hypes her alleged relationships with women over her work as a regent and activist of religious tolerance. Accuracy aside, it’s a testament to Christina’s bold individuality that people today are still discussing and debating the life of this crossdressing, troublemaking, opinionated Renaissance queen. That is, king.

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