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Long Live Lasers!

A Stanford-centric look at 50 years of innovation.


Download "Long Live Lasers" Timeline (PDF)

By Greta Lorge

In 1960, a young Stanford graduate named Theodore Maiman designed and built the world's first working laser. The realization of a concept introduced four years earlier by Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes of Bell Labs, it used pulses from a photographer's flash lamp to excite atoms in a fingertip-sized ruby crystal, producing a deep red beam. Some might even call it Cardinal. University faculty, students and alumni have made significant contributions to the field ever since, advancing the fundamental science (and earning three Nobel Prizes—booyah!), as well as developing applications in industries as diverse as medicine, electronics, telecommunications, entertainment and the military. Hail, Stanford, hail.


May 16, 1960: While working at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., Theodore Maiman*, MS '51, PhD '55, creates the first working laser, using a synthetic ruby crystal as the medium.

1960: At Bell Labs, Ali Javan invents the helium neon laser, the first continuous-beam gas laser, used in holography and barcode scanners among other things.

1961: Peter A. Franken*, who taught at Stanford in the '50s, discovers nonlinear optics when he focuses a ruby laser onto a quartz crystal and generates ultraviolet light.

Robert Rempel*, MS '50, PhD '56, cofounds the first commercial laser company, Spectra-Physics, in Mountain View.

1962: Doctors at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center use a ruby laser to destroy a retinal tumor—the first medical use of a laser.

Nick Holonyak Jr. at GE invents a visible semiconductor laser diode, paving the way for LEDs and laser pointers.

1963: C. Kumar N. Patel, MS '59, PhD '61, develops the carbon dioxide laser, widely employed in industrial applications, at Bell Labs.

Stanford School of Medicine doctors Milton Flocks* and H. Christian Zweng*, '45, MD '49, in collaboration with Narinder Kapany, a visiting scholar in physics, adapt a ruby laser to treat diabetic retinopathy.

1964: Richard G. Smith*, '58, MS '59, PhD '63, is part of the Bell Labs team that creates the first working Nd: YAG laser, whose uses include cosmetic surgery and treatment of skin cancer.

Richard H. Johnson*, MS '53, was instrumental in developing the aeronautical solutions for the first laser guided bomb, the BOLT 117.

1965: Stanford engineering professor Anthony E. Siegman, PhD '57, introduces the concept of unstable optical resonators for laser applications, an important contribution to the field of quantum electronics.

Matt Lehmann Jr.*, '31, MS '54, Engr '55, Joseph Goodman, MS '60, PhD '63, and David Jackson, MS '65, demonstrate the first holographic movie at Stanford.

1967: Stephen E. Harris, MS '61, PhD '64, and Robert L. Byer, MS '67, PhD '69, demonstrate a tunable laser beam, i.e. one that's wavelength can be controlled, an important advance in the development of spectroscopy.

1969: Donald J. Spencer*, '56, leads the team that develops the continuous-wave chemical laser at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, Calif.

First public laser show, created by Lowell Cross and Carson D. Jeffries*, PhD '51, performed at Mills College in Oakland, Calif; they are commissioned to design a laser and sound show for the Expo '70 World's Fair in Japan.

1970: Theodor Hänsch, then a post-doc who had recently joined the Stanford physics department, and Arthur Schawlow*, who was at the time its chair, make the first edible laser—out of Jell-O!

1971: Gary Starkweather develops the first functional laser printer at Xerox PARC. (electronics)

1972: Hewlett Packard introduces the world's first scientific pocket calculator, the HP-35, with a fifteen-digit LED display.

1974: The first UPC barcode scanner, developed by Alfred P. Hildebrand*, '63, MBA '66, at Spectra-Physics, rings up a 10-pack of Wrigley's gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

1976: A group led by John M. J. Madey, PhD '71, at Stanford demonstrates the first free electron laser—a beam of electrons accelerated to near light speed—that led to precision instruments especially useful in brain surgery.

1977: The first live telephone traffic through fiber optics sent from Long Beach to Artesia, Calif.

1980: The U.S. Army begins using a "Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System"—a precursor to laser tag—for training exercises.

1981: Arthur Schawlow* shares the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of laser spectroscopy.

1982: The first audio CD to be released commercially is Billy Joel's 1978 album 52nd Street.

1986: Robert S. Reis, MS '83, MS '84, Engr '87, and Robert E. Stoddard, MS '84, debut the first laser turntable (based on Reis's Stanford master's thesis) at the Consumer Electronics Show.

1988: First transatlantic fiber optic cable, capable of handling 40,000 international telephone calls simultaneously, is laid.

1992: Olav Solgaard, MS '87, PhD '92, invents the grating light valve, which uses an array of tiny, movable ribbons to diffract laser light, and is used in high-resolution displays.

1997: Stanford professor Steven Chu shares the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, a method dubbed "optical molasses."

1998: The first laser is approved for LASIK surgery by the FDA.

2005: Theodor Hänsch shares the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique.

2006: John Bowers, MS '78, PhD '81, at UC-Santa Barbara invents the first silicon laser, a key step toward optical computing.

2008: Blu-ray beats out competing blue laser based technology HD DVD as the format of choice for high definition media.

2009: SLAC's linear accelerator drives a new kind of laser to create the first coherent X-ray beam, powerful enough to make movies of single atoms in motion.

2010: The National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif., delivers a historic level of laser energy—more than 1 megajoule (approximately 500 times the energy consumed by the U.S. at any given time).

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