Elsa Garmire

Pioneering laser physicist with a penchant for art helped launch laser light shows
01 November 2021
By Jeff Hecht
pioneering laser physicist Elsa Garmire
Garmire in an undated photo using an argon-ion laser made by Coherent Radiation Laboratories (now Coherent Inc.) in Amnon Yariv’s lab at Caltech. Front right is a slowly rotating mirror to direct the light.

The creative chaos of the 1960s launched light shows into the world of entertainment. Lasers soon followed, but they didn't reach the big time of entertainment until the 1970s, when planetariums became starry stages for the kinetic art of multicolored laser beams sweeping above audiences.

The technological luminary who devised the optics to bring laser beams alive was Elsa Garmire, a postdoctoral research fellow at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a penchant for art and innovation. She teamed briefly with film student Ivan Dryer, who had run planetarium shows in Los Angeles, to bring to life laser shows for the public.

In time, Dryer would use his gift for showmanship to create laser light shows that entertained people around the world.

Garmire, on the other hand, never left her career in science. Born in 1939 in Buffalo, New York, USA, she recalls deciding to become a physicist in sixth grade. Indeed, she went on to become laser pioneer Charles Townes' first graduate student after he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physics department in 1961. Under his guidance, she used one of the first commercial ruby lasers made by Trion Instruments. But she also brought a lifelong interest in art.

Garmire arrived at Caltech in 1966 holding one of the first doctoral degrees in nonlinear optics from MIT. As a postdoc for Amnon Yariv, a professor of electrical engineering and applied physics, she was also the wife of a newly hired physics professor, the mother of two small children, and the only female technical professional working in the electrical engineering building.

Early during Garmire's time at Caltech, a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Billy Klüver paid a visit trying to interest his old friend Yariv in a project called "Experiments in Art and Technology" (EAT). His project sought to explore how light and other technologies could help artists make dynamic or performance art come to life.

Yariv wasn't interested, but he directed Klüver to Garmire, who tells Photonics Focus, "I got enthusiastic" when Klüver began discussing his plans to get artists and engineers to collaborate. She says she was bored with her science project at the time and wanted something else to do.

With new-found inspiration, Garmire would become part of EAT's best-known project: an art pavilion, funded by Pepsi-Cola, that deployed new forms of dynamic art for attendees at Expo '70, the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, Japan. "The pavilion became very famous in modern art," she recalls. For the exhibit, "I designed the world's largest hemispherical mirror-90 feet in diameter." Made of Mylar film, it allowed people to look up and see real-image 3D reflections. "It was very successful. I went through and it was just unbelievable. I could see the whole mirror upside down," Garmire recalls.

Garmire, however, was not involved in producing the pavilion's laser light show, which she found " incredibly boring" because all it did with a multicolor krypton laser was draw resonant patterns called Lissajous curves. She wanted to push boundaries, so back at Caltech, she experimented with new optics for light shows. She invented textured plastic windows and reflecting films that she combined with x-y scanning systems to diffract the blue and green beams to display fascinating and ever-changing patterns on the walls.

Garmire says her secret for the diffractors was disarmingly simple: drops of Duco cement dripped onto glass slides that solidified into a transparent mass full of air bubbles that would scatter the laser beams. After a couple of laser shows at Caltech, she talked her way into displaying one for the opening of a new art gallery at the famed intersection of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. The laser display fascinated reporters who filmed it for the evening news.

The publicity brought an inquiry from Dryer, who wanted to film the display in operation with a 16-mm camera. He was likewise entranced by the laser display at Garmire's Caltech lab, but disappointed at how poorly film recorded the bright laser colors and effects. He decided the laser display would be far more impressive live than on film.

Having presented planetarium shows at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Dryer thought the facility would make a great venue for laser concerts. Garmire says she thought of playing classical music, but Dryer envisioned rock music. Both were in their early thirties and ambitious. They decided to start a company named Laser Images, with Garmire as president, but the business took time to get off the ground.

After a year, however, Garmire had second thoughts. She says what brought her back to science was being excited by the promise of an engineering idea of her own—confining light in gallium-arsenide waveguides by implanting ions to guide it through the solid. She says her experience with art had convinced her that science was a better field for women. She gave the company to Dryer in 1973 and went on to a highly successful scientific career at the University of Southern California and Dartmouth College. She is now retired in Santa Cruz, California.

Dryer first tried to interest Griffith Observatory officials in a planetarium laser show at the end of 1970, but they didn't nibble at the concept of one red laser scanning the dome. Instead, he developed laser effects for events, including a series of rock concerts by Alice Cooper. Next, he borrowed a krypton laser for a demonstration that persuaded the observatory to try laser shows in its planetarium on four nights in late 1973 when the venue otherwise would have been closed. He bought a laser for $10,000, installed a projection system, and named the show Laserium. After just a few performances, the show drew a packed house. Performances at Griffith would continue for 28 years, making it the longest running theatrical attraction in Los Angeles. Laserium was not the first laser light show, but it was the first to wow the public, and Dryer trademarked the name. The show spread around the world, playing in 46 cities on five continents. After a few years, shows were choreographed and the music edited at company headquarters in Van Nuys, California, but Dryer made sure a "laserist" performed each show live, giving their own touch to the light like a musician adds their own interpretation to a composer's music. Computerized controls later broadened the range of images the lasers could draw. Large venues required powers of up to 20 watts from mixed-gas argon-krypton lasers.

The laser show business peaked in the 1990s. By 2002, Laserium shows had been seen by more than 20 million people. But then planetariums began a shift back to presenting mostly scientific programs.

Dryer sold Laser Images in 2009 and died in 2017. He always credited Garmire for her contributions to the technology and business. Today, a company called Lumalaser is planning a new generation of Laserium shows.

Jeff Hecht is an SPIE Member and freelancer who writes about science and technology.

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