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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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Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia
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Elizebeth Friedman, America's Unsung Wartime Codebreaker
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Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia

An American pioneer in the field of cryptology—the study of writing and solving secret codes—William Friedman is known for his distinguished career as an expert codebreaker with the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II. But although Friedman is one of the biggest names in cryptanalysis—he coined the word itself—historians often skip over the fact that his wife, Elizebeth, was every bit as skilled a codebreaker. Her accomplishments have been (sometimes deliberately) kept from the spotlight.

The youngest of nine kids in a Quaker family, Elizebeth Friedman (née Smith) was born in rural Indiana in 1892. (Her mother spelled her name unusually, swapping out the a for another e, reportedly because she disliked the nickname “Eliza.”) Young Elizebeth was bright and displayed a talent for languages, and was determined to go to college despite the discouragement of her father—so determined that she eventually ended up borrowing tuition from him at a 6 percent interest rate. After starting out at Ohio’s Wooster College in 1911, she finished her degree at Hillsdale College in Michigan, majoring in English lit. She also studied German, Greek, and Latin at Hillsdale, and it was there that she discovered her lifelong love for Shakespeare.

After graduation and a brief spell as a substitute principal at an Indiana high school, Elizebeth traveled to Chicago in 1916 and visited the Newberry Library, where Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. There—having quit her principal job out of boredom—she asked the librarians if they knew of any research or literature jobs available. Within minutes, she was being introduced to the eccentric George Fabyan, who ran a 500-acre private research facility called Riverbank in nearby Geneva, Illinois. At the time, Fabyan also employed a scholar named Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was trying to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays. Gallup needed a research assistant. Elizebeth was taken to Riverbank for an interview, and a few days later, she was hired.

At Riverbank, Elizebeth worked on a cipher that Gallup claimed was hidden in Shakespeare’s sonnets and supposedly proved Bacon's authorship. Riverbank also employed the Russian-born William Friedman, a Cornell-educated geneticist, to work on wheat, although he became increasingly drawn to the Shakespeare project. William and Elizebeth fell in love and were married in May 1917, one month after the U.S. entered World War I.

Riverbank was one of the first institutes to focus on cryptology, and in the early days of the war, the War Department relied upon Riverbank almost exclusively. "So little was known in this country of codes and ciphers when the United States entered World War I, that we ourselves had to be the learners, the workers and the teachers all at one and the same time," Elizebeth wrote in her memoir.

But the Friedmans sometimes worked for other governments, too. After a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Justice, Scotland Yard brought them a trunk full of mysterious messages the British suspected were being used to facilitate insurrection in India, which was then a British colony. By cracking the codes, written in blocks of numbers, the Friedmans exposed the Hindu-German Conspiracy—in which Hindu activists in the U.S. were shipping weapons to India with German assistance. The resulting trial was one of the largest and most expensive in U.S. history at that time, and it ended sensationally when a gunman opened fire in the courtroom, killing one of the defendants before being killed by a U.S. Marshal. Unaware of the Friedmans' codebreaking work, he apparently believed the defendant had snitched.

The war ended in 1918, but Elizebeth and William continued their work for the military, and in 1921, they moved to Washington, D.C. to focus on military contract work full-time. Elizebeth loved the change of scenery, going from the rural countryside to the city—she recalled going to the theater several times a week when she first arrived in D.C.

After a period spent working for the Navy, she left the paid workforce for a few years to start raising her children, Barbara and John. But in 1925, the Coast Guard came calling, asking for her help on Prohibition-related cases. Soon she was cracking encrypted radio messages used by international liquor-smugglers who hid booze in shipments of jewelry, perfume, and even pinto beans.

Elizebeth proved to be a pivotal asset to the Coast Guard during Prohibition. She was the star witness in a 1933 trial following the bust of a million-dollar bootleg rum operation in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. When asked in court to prove how “MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB" could be decoded to "anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?"—just one of perhaps thousands of coded messages that formed key evidence in the trial—Elizebeth asked the judge to find her a chalkboard. She proceeded to give the court a lecture on simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers, and polysyllabic ciphers, then reviewed how, over the course of two years, she and her team painstakingly intercepted and deciphered the radio broadcasts of four illicit distilleries in New Orleans, explaining what each transmission meant. Special Assistant to the Attorney General Colonel Amos W. Woodcock later wrote that Elizebeth's obvious proficiency "made an unusual impression."

Just a year later, Elizebeth again proved invaluable to the Coast Guard in the "I’m Alone" case, in which a ship flying a Canadian flag was sunk by the Coast Guard after refusing to acknowledge a "heave to and be searched" signal. After Canada filed a lawsuit against the U.S. for $380,000, including damages for the ship, its cargo (which included liquor), and personnel losses, Elizebeth came to the rescue: She was able to solve 23 separate encoded messages from the ship that proved the I’m Alone was actually owned by American bootleggers, despite its Canadian decoy flag. The main charges against the U.S. were dismissed, and the Canadian government was so impressed with Elizebeth’s work that it asked the U.S. for her help in catching a ring of Chinese opium smugglers. Her testimony later led to five convictions.

A photograph of William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, probably in the 1950s
William and Elizebeth Friedman
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Elizebeth and William weren’t just code-breakers by day. Their personal fascination with cryptology permeated their whole lives, in work and in play, and built a unique bond between them. The pair used ciphers in family gatherings with their children, and developed various codes to communicate with one another as well throughout their long relationship. They were even known to host dinner parties where the menus were encoded—in order to proceed to the next course, their guests would have to solve the puzzles.

With the start of WWII, Elizebeth began working for the Coordinator of Information, an intelligence service that served as the forerunner to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. While William won huge acclaim for leading the team that figured out Japan’s Purple Encryption Machine—a discovery that gave the U.S. government access to diplomatic communications prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—Elizebeth’s successes were less publicized. In fact, researchers have described hitting a "brick wall" when trying to find more details of her wartime activities. But according to Jason Fagone, author of the recent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Elizebeth spent the war as a Nazi spy hunter for the FBI, breaking German codes and working closely with British intelligence to bust Axis spy rings. J. Edgar Hoover wrote her out of the story once the war had ended, classifying her files as top-secret and taking the credit for himself.

One piece of Elizebeth's work for the FBI is slightly better-known, however: Her code-cracking expertise was key in solving the "Doll Woman Case" of 1944, wherein Velvalee Dickinson, an antique doll dealer based in New York City, was convicted of spying on behalf of the Japanese government. Elizebeth's work helped prove that letters Dickinson had written, though seemingly about the condition of antique dolls, actually described the positions of U.S. ships and other war-related matters and were intended for the hands of Axis officials. As Fagone notes, although newspapers of the day wrote breathlessly about Dickinson as "the War's No. 1 woman spy" and how her codes were cracked by "FBI cryptographers," Elizebeth was never mentioned.

Elizebeth retired in 1946, a year after World War II ended, and William did the same the following year. In 1957, after many years of research, they finally published their masterwork on the bard, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, which won awards from several Shakespeare research facilities. In contradiction to Gallup's theories, the Friedmans denied that Francis Bacon had written any works known as Shakespeare’s, and they even buried a cheeky message to that effect on one of the pages—an italicized phrase that when deciphered reads: "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon."

After William’s death in 1969, Elizebeth dedicated large amounts of her time to compiling and documenting her husband’s work in cryptology, rather than celebrating her own extraordinary achievements in the field. The fruits of her effort would eventually become part of the George C. Marshall Research Library, named after the WWII-era Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

Elizebeth herself died on Halloween 1980 and was interred with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. Inscribed on their double gravestone is a quote, not by William Shakespeare, but commonly attributed to Francis Bacon: "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER." It too is a cipher—when decrypted, it reads "WFF," William Friedman's initials.

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Walter Jackson Freeman, Father of the Lobotomy
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A pair of Watts-Freeman lobotomy instruments circa 1950

For many, the word lobotomy conjures up images of an operation performed indiscriminately using crude instruments, leaving patients drooling vegetables. You may have even heard tales of a mad doctor traversing the country offering the procedure from his four-wheeled “Lobotomobile.” That story, of course, is a mix of fact and fiction—one that befits the eccentric creator of the procedure, Walter Jackson Freeman II.

Despite his grim legacy today, Freeman came from a family long respected for its work in the healing profession. His father was a noted otolaryngologist, and his maternal grandfather was a Civil War surgeon who went on to treat six U.S. presidents, including then-future president Franklin Roosevelt in the early years of his paralysis from polio.

Freeman’s academic career was promising, too. Graduating from Yale in 1916, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study medicine, earning his degree and completing an internship there before traveling to Europe to study neurology. Upon return, he took a position as laboratories director at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a prominent Washington, D.C. psychiatric facility.

Freeman was deeply affected by the troubling conditions he witnessed at Saint Elizabeths. Before the appearance of Thorazine and other effective psychiatric drugs in the mid-1950s, mental hospitals were often massively overcrowded, and many patients were held for decades on end. In Freeman’s native Philadelphia, for instance, the state hospital was known to house roughly 75 percent more patients than its approved capacity. In 1948, writer Albert Deutsch described a visit to the hospital that reminded him “of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps,” describing rooms “swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern.”

While at St. Elizabeths, Freeman came to dismiss the reigning psychoanalytic approach—in which mental illnesses were seen as arising from the unconscious—as particularly useless in institutional settings. He believed that mental disorders had a well-defined physical cause, and increasingly embraced the idea of psychosurgery (brain surgery as a means of psychological treatment). His research in the field led him to the work of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who in 1935 found some success relieving mental maladies with the leucotomy, a procedure in which neural connections were severed by coring out tissues of the prefrontal cortex. Freeman was so impressed by this procedure that in 1944 he nominated Moniz for the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to the Portuguese neurologist five years later.

Because Freeman’s background was that of a neurologist rather than a surgeon, he enlisted the help of a neurosurgeon named James Watts to modify Moniz’s technique, which he renamed “lobotomy.” (The extent to which Freeman modified Moniz's procedure—which the latter had continued to refine—versus adopting it wholesale is a matter of debate.)

Freeman and Watts would perform their first lobotomy in September 1936 on a Kansas housewife named Alice Hood Hammatt. The results were encouraging: Although she had previously been diagnosed with "agitated depression" and was prone to laughing and weeping hysterically, she awoke from the operation with a "placid expression," according to her doctors, and was soon unable to remember what had made her so upset. Hammatt's husband, who later wrote to Freeman to thank him, called his wife’s post-surgery years “the happiest of her life.”

By 1942, Freeman and Watts had performed the surgery on over 200 patients (reporting improvement in 63 percent of them), and the practice had been taken up by other surgeons. Freeman reportedly felt that the lobotomy was “only a little more dangerous than an operation to remove an infected tooth.” But he still hoped for a procedure that could be more readily available to the thousands of patients languishing in mental hospitals—one that would be faster, more effective, and require fewer resources and specialized tools.

After learning of an Italian doctor who used the eye socket to access the brain, Freeman developed his transorbital lobotomy. This "improved" technique involved an instrument that slid neatly between a patient’s eyeball and the bony orbit housing it in the skull. The pick was then hammered through the bone and wiggled about with the goal of severing neural fibers connecting the frontal lobes and thalamus. The process was then repeated through the opposite eye. Sometimes called the "ice pick" lobotomy, early surgeries actually used an ice pick from Freeman's kitchen.

While the prefrontal lobotomy required over an hour of the surgeon’s time, this new procedure could be completed in 10 minutes. No drilling into the skull or dressing of post-surgery wounds was required. Freeman hoped that institutional psychiatrists, untrained in surgery, would one day be able to perform the procedure.

Like the prefrontal lobotomy, early surgeries seemed to be a success. The operation was first performed in 1946, on a housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco. Angelene Forester, her daughter, remembers her mother as “absolutely violently suicidal” before the surgery. After Freeman’s hammering and probing, “It stopped immediately. It was just peace.”

Under the slogan "Lobotomy gets them home," Freeman began touring the country promoting his startling new ideas. His crusade was aided by his cocky, larger-than-life persona. Watts later recalled to the Washington Post that when lecturing, Freeman was “almost a ham actor,” so entertaining that "people would bring their dates to the clinic to hear him lecture." Freeman’s fanatic advocacy of the lobotomy, however, eventually became too much for Watts, leading to a parting of ways in 1950. "Any procedure involving the cutting of the brain tissue is a major operation and should remain in the hands of the neurological surgeon,” Watts later wrote. He explained to the Post: "I just didn't think somebody could [spend] a week with us and go home and do lobotomies."

Everything Freeman did was geared toward economy, speed, and publicity. In 1952 he performed 228 lobotomies in a two-week period for state hospitals of West Virginia; charging a mere $25 per operation, he worked without surgical mask or gloves. During marathon surgery sessions, he would often talk to journalists he’d invited in to promote his crusade, occasionally showboating with a “two-handed” technique, hammering picks into both eye sockets simultaneously. In 1951, one patient in an Iowa hospital died during the procedure when Freeman allowed himself to be distracted by a photo op for the press.

Freeman advocated the transorbital lobotomy for a broad spectrum of patients, including children as young as seven. But with the reduction of unwanted symptoms could come a tragic deadening of all emotion. A shocking number of those who received the procedure were left utterly debilitated and unable to care for themselves. This had been true of the prefrontal lobotomy, too: Notably debilitated patients included Rosemary Kennedy, sister of the late president, as well as Rose Williams, sister of playwright Tennessee Williams. Of the approximately 3500 lobotomies Freeman performed himself, 490 resulted in fatalities.

In 1967, after a patient succumbed to cerebral hemorrhage during surgery, Freeman decided to stop performing lobotomies. But he did not give up his advocacy, taking to the road in a camper van (which later writers dubbed the "Lobotomobile") to visit former patients and document his successes. (Although popular myth has Freeman performing the surgeries from his van, that was never the case.)

By then, the medical community had little use for Freeman’s triumphalism. In the mid-1950s, a new generation of more effective psychiatric medications had started sidelining Freeman’s efforts, and the very notion of psychosurgery increasingly carried a stigma. By 1950, the lobotomy had been outlawed in the Soviet Union, with Germany and Japan soon following suit. In the U.S. today, the procedure as performed by Freeman is extinct, if not technically illegal. However, some scholars note that Freeman's work paved the way for forms of neurosurgery still used in cases of severe psychiatric illness, as well as procedures such as deep brain stimulation, used to treat neurological conditions like Parkinson's.

Walter Freeman died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 76. Despite the dark associations that remain around the operation he pioneered, he believed himself a humanitarian pioneer until the very end.

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