Retrobituaries: Theodore Maiman, Inventor of the Laser

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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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May 16, 2013 - 1:00pm
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