24 March 2010

BELLINGHAM, WA, USA -- A popular display of vintage and new laser equipment shown at SPIE Photonics West in January to celebrate the 50th anniversary this year of the invention of the first laser has been posted online as a virtual museum. SPIE is at the forefront of the anniversary celebration through its Advancing the Laser: 50 Years and Into the Future tribute and as a founding partner in LaserFest.

The virtual museum includes a video guided tour with laser expert Jeff Hecht and Display panels honor laser luminariesphotos of individual pieces loaned from collections including the archives of Theodore Maiman, inventor of the first laser. Pieces include the first supermarket barcode scanner, Maiman's original solid-state ruby laser designs, early holography and semiconductor etching lasers, the first high-power green lasers, and scores of other items.

A selection of the equipment shown at Photonics West will be displayed again in August at SPIE Optics and Photonics in San Diego. See the collection online at spie.org/lasermuseum.

Laser luminary and timeline photo displays built by SPIE for the exhibit also are being shown at numerous laser celebrations at events throughout the anniversary year. The timeline panels were developed by SPIE with Laser Focus World magazine, in consultation with Hecht.

The SPIE Advancing the Laser video series is also part of the virtual museum, and features interviews with laser pioneers telling the history of the technology as well as with many of today's researchers who are creating the future.

Lasers as magnets

The display at Photonics West, held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, became a gathering place for laser experts. Among them were Charles Townes, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1958 invention of the maser; Kumar Patel, inventor of the CO2 laser; laser pioneer Peter Chu of Boeing; Eric Spitz, who first patented the video laser disc; and George Valley, a laser researcher at Hughes Research Labs, where Maiman demonstrated the first laser.

Together, the equipment and photo displays offered "an enlightening tutorial" demonstrating how laser technology has become ubiquitous through its many applications, noted Finlay Colville of Coherent. His company contributed a laser-light display in the Photonics West entrance hall. Cymer, Nufern, Schott, CVI Melles Griot, Spectra-Physics, ScanLab, Kentek, Daylight Solutions, BaySpec, and the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab also contributed.

Two of the largest private contributors were Robert Hess and Richard Stone.

Hess originally was interested only in older holography lasers such as his 1963 Perkin Elmer/Spectra-Physics Model 111 He-Ne laser. His collection also includes a 1962 Hughes Aircraft Company Model 200 ruby laser system, the still fully operational commercialized design of Maiman's original laser, and a 1969 Hughes Model 3052 argon ion laser.

Stone said he amassed much of his collection by rescuing defunct lasers while at his job at Lockheed Martin, sometimes to the chagrin of his supervisors: he just could not throw them away.

Maiman's widow, Kathleen, contributed numerous items including a Maiman-built model of the first laser, his prototype for the first medical laser, and his research notebook with notes from 16 May 1960: the day he successfully used the first laser.

More discoveries ahead

While a look into the past is illuminating, said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs, "the observance of the 50th anniversary of the laser establishes a challenge for today's much more numerous and better-equipped scientists and engineers. They are too late to invent the laser, but why not take on ambitious goals for renewable energy or laser-enabled biomedical knowledge base to dramatically improve the human condition?" Arthurs' PhD work and early career were in the laser lab of the late Daniel Bradley at Queen's University Belfast, and he worked in the laser industry before coming to SPIE.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Laureate in physics and laser scientist, struck a similar note in comments to SPIE: "We haven't seen the last of the impacts from the discovery of the laser. I am sure there are many more revolutionary discoveries to be made from ongoing research and development that promise similar opportunities for our society in the future."

SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, was founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. Serving more than 188,000 constituents from 138 countries, the Society advances emerging technologies through interdisciplinary information exchange, continuing education, publications, patent precedent, and career and professional growth. SPIE annually organizes and sponsors approximately 25 major technical forums, exhibitions, and education programs in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific, and supports scholarships, grants, and other education programs around the world.

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