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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Theodore Maiman, Inventor of the Laser

Wikimedia Commons
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 Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.
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Caroline Weldon, 19th Century Indigenous Rights Advocate and Sitting Bull's Secretary
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.

It was December 15, 1890 and Sitting Bull was dead. The Indian police who had shot and killed him earlier that day were tearing through his cabins when they found two of the chief's wives and several other women hiding his son under a mattress, a portrait of the dead Hunkpapa Lakota leader hanging on the wall. Though they had been ordered not to touch anything, one of the policemen tore the painting down, using his rifle to smash the frame and his fist to punch a hole in the canvas. Lieutenant Matthew F. Steele, a cavalry member among those sent to assist the policemen, wrestled the painting—done, he later recalled, by a "Mrs. Weldon, a woman from the East"—away before it could be destroyed completely. Steele bought the painting from Sitting Bull's wives for $2 and kept it for six decades, donating it to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1953.

But who was the “Mrs. Weldon” who had journeyed all the way from the East to the Standing Rock Reservation to paint it? As in Steele's recollection, she is often a footnote to history—treated like a passing phantom when mentioned at all. Yet Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as an activist who set out alone to try and help Sitting Bull and his people. While her story as a white woman attempting to guide indigenous affairs is not uncomplicated, what she did was rare both in terms of 19th century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era. Her courage is reflected in the nickname the Sioux gave her: “Woman Walking Ahead."

Sitting Bull, 1881
Sitting Bull, 1881
O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The woman who would become Caroline Weldon was born Susanna Karolina Faesch in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland, in 1844. Her parents divorced when she was almost 5 years old, and she arrived in the United States with her mother in the 1850s. She grew up in Brooklyn, where she eventually married a fellow Swiss named Claudius Bernhard Schlatter. It was an unhappy marriage—at one point she left him for another man—and they divorced in 1883.

As she "struggled to endure her loveless marriage," Eileen Pollack writes in her book Woman Walking Ahead, the budding activist immersed herself in reading about the news of the West, particularly Sitting Bull’s leadership of the Sioux in Standing Rock. After her divorce, she joined the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), formed by activist Dr. Thomas Bland with his wife Cora in response to the controversial Dawes Act. The act, passed in 1887, broke up indigenous land into individual allotments—often seen as a key step in the federal government's forced assimilation of Native Americans. It was sometime in the 1880s, according to researcher Daniel Guggisberg, that she also invented a new name for herself: Caroline Weldon. By then, she'd also had a son, named Christie, out of wedlock.

In 1889, accompanied only by Christie, Weldon left Brooklyn and went west to offer her support of Sitting Bull’s opposition to the Dawes Act in person. Although Sitting Bull had been well-known as a commander at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, by the 1880s, aside from a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, his life was confined to the Standing Rock reservation. When Weldon arrived in June of 1889, he was suffering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

For several months after arriving at Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull’s secretary. She also painted four portraits of him, and offered financial support to him and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother. Weldon would later describe her impression of Sitting Bull: "As a friend […] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree.”

And while Sitting Bull seems to have appreciated her actions, not everyone did. Indian Agent James McLaughlin—one of the individuals authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government, and who would order Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest—openly detested Weldon for her meddling. The press was also unkind, calling her “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” One 1889 headline in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune crowed: "A New Jersey Widow Falls Victim to Sitting Bull's Charms.”

But any cooperation between Weldon and Sitting Bull would be interrupted by the dawn of the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas. The movement was sparked by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who prophesied in 1889 that the circular dance would help return the dead to the land of the living, where they would fight and force the white people off the land they'd stolen before uniting the indigenous people in peace. At a time when the Dawes Act was dividing ancestral land, and after decades of federal genocide, the Ghost Dance quickly became a phenomenon.

Weldon correctly assessed that Sitting Bull’s participation in the Ghost Dance would be used to arrest or kill him; she incorrectly perceived the spread of the dance as a Mormon plot. (The Mormons had been active in attempting to convert indigenous people as they moved into western land in the 1800s.) The growing tension around Weldon’s advocacy against the dance eventually led to her expulsion from the reservation.

She pled in a letter addressed to "My Dakotas": "Your dead friends will not come back to you. Save your money and take care of the living.” According to Ian Frazier in his 1989 book Great Plains, Sitting Bull tried proposing marriage to her—an attempt she rebuffed. She "finally left Sitting Bull's camp in disgust," and Sitting Bull drove her to the nearby town of Cannonball in his wagon.

The final years of Weldon's life were bleak. Only a month before Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, her son died of an infection. After spending some time in Kansas City, she came home to Brooklyn, falling into obscurity as the years went on. One night in 1921, a candle caught her apartment on fire, and she died on March 15 from her burns. Today, she’s buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, near an obelisk marked Valentiny, her stepfather’s name.

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Christine Granville, World War II Special Agent
Christine Granville circa 1950
Christine Granville circa 1950
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.

But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.

Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.

According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”

Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”

Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."

A version of this article originally ran in 2016.

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