Happy 50th Birthday Laser…

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Via cnet news.

A post over on cnet News caught my eye this morning because it celebrated the 50th birthday of the LASER. The article begins

Fifty years ago Saturday, a Hughes Labs researcher named Theodore Maiman changed the world.

That day, Maiman became the first person on Earth to build a working laser, something that colleagues at a number of other companies and institutions had been feverishly trying to do for months or even years.?

That’s right, it was just 50 years ago this Saturday that the Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation? or LASER was invented. That is a big deal. Why? Because that technology makes so many of the things we currently enjoy possible. LASER technology is used for CDs and DVDs, for calls and other data that are transmitted over optical fiber and for much much more. We may not realize it but we come into contact with LASERS numerous times each day and the technology to make it all possible was only invented 50 years ago tomorrow.

It struck a chord. Here’s why.

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As I posted last year on Father’s Day I grew up with my father working for one iteration or another of Bell Labs (now Alcatel Lucent). Many of our friends also worked for “The Labs”, and the impact of their work is all around us in today’s technology. They also had a tremendous impact on the next generation of technology. For example, the son of one Bell Labs researcher is now a top-level programmer at PIXAR (I remember playing the game “Adventure” with him on an early computer. He always “got it”. Me… not so much.). Another has been working for Apple for the last two decades and has been one of the people behind the Mac Mail application and a number of the apps on both the iPhone and iPad. (Oh how I wish he didn’t have to observe Apple’s secrecy policies. The stuff he must know!!!) Yes, “The Labs” was a primary force in so many of today’s technologies and chief among them is the LASER.

So I read the cnet article and a flood of memories came back to me. I remember going into my dad’s lab and having to put on funky goggles so my eyes would not get damaged. (The ones above are among the “sportier” of those available at the time.) I remember seeing a YAG laser (yttrium aluminium garnet) and walking around the rest of the day saying “YAG” in as many funny voices as I could. (Come on now, it is a funny word… try saying it over and over and you will see.) I remembered that 37 years ago I would go into my dad’s lab on “bring your future geek to work day” and see different kinds of lasers cutting through different kinds of materials with amazing precision. And I remember spending a summer working in one of his former departments as we tried to make Fiber Optical cable that was pure enough to transmit data with minimal loss and strong enough to lay the first-ever Trans-Atlantic cable line. (Yes, my father’s department played a huge role in today’s ubiquitous world-wide connectivity.)

The above magazine article was published in 1977. If you push in on the huge, rudimentary Laser my dad is working on you’ll see this…

Yes, Lasers have come a long way since then.

And I didn’t realize until this morning how young the technology was at the time he was showing me all of this. I do, however, remember that when I asked him what practical use this had he said, “None yet… but there will be…”

I couldn’t recall what exact role my dad played in early LASER research so I went and Googled him; I found this in the article announcing his retirement.

Cohen holds several patents on the use of lasers for micromachining thin films and integrated circuits and played a key role in the introduction laser trimming of resistors and circuits, and laser cutting of ceramic circuit substrates into manufacture. He also spent many of his research years working on a once-experimental technology based on fiber optics.

“Mel was a real force behind the push for the company to take an early leadership position in the area of fiber optics,” said Alastair Glass, director of Photonic Research.

“We were creating what would become the basis for the now- prevalent technology of fiber optics,” Cohen remembered.”It was thanks to the vision and guts of a small bunch of people that fiber optics became the medium of choice.I was lucky to have had the chance to play a part in developing that.

In the early 90s, Cohen was appointed Executive Director of the Electronic and Photonic Devices Division and, concurrently, Manufacturing and Development Vice President for the optoelectronics business of Microelectronics…. He was also responsible for the research and development on photonic logic devices including early attempts to use optical devices for switching and computing.

Yup, I was lucky enough to see Laser technology in its earliest stages but I didn’t realize how YOUNG the technology was when I first saw it. But “thanks to the vision and guts of a small bunch of people” 50 years later Laser technology surrounds us on a daily basis… and most of the time we don’t even know it.

So happy 50th Laser, and thanks for everything you do!!!


About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.