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Remembering Theodore Maiman, Inventor Who Built The First Laser

Initially misidentified as a "death ray," the creation ended up having multiple peaceful uses ranging from eye surgery to bar code readers.

W. David Gardner

May 14, 2007

2 Min Read

Theodore H. Maiman, 79, the scientist credited with building the first working laser, died May 5 in Vancouver, Canada. His wife said he had systemic mastocytosis, a genetic disorder.

Initially Maiman was distressed that his 1960 invention was called a "death ray" after a journalist inaccurately described his "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (laser)" as a science fiction discovery. The 1960 laser, of course, ended up having multiple peaceful uses ranging from eye surgery and bar code readers to light shows and tattoo removal.

"I don't know of anyone who's been killed by a laser, even by accident," he said after the laser was so widely adopted, "but I do know several people who have been healed by lasers."

Dr. Maiman's "eureka" moment came on May 16, 1960 at Hughes Research Laboratory in California when he took an off-the-shelf flash lamp and teamed it with a synthetic ruby crystal. The resulting invention, he said, was really "ridiculously simple." The technology involves atom light waves being amplified after they have been radiated and concentrated in a narrow beam.

Dr. Maiman's assistant, Charles Asawa, also contributed to the invention, according to media reports.

However simple and however brilliant, the invention didn't take off immediately. Dr. Maiman left Hughes and refined his brainchild in a series of companies; gradually, the laser took hold in numerous disciplines and industries.

Later, he was horrified when a laser variation showed up in President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" antimissile armaments system.

Before the laser, Dr. Maiman had worked on the "maser," which amplified microwaves. Scientists who contributed to the maser included Charles Townes of Columbia University and Arthur Shawlow of Bell Labs -- both of whom won Nobel Prizes for their work. According to later reports, New York physicist Gordon Gould coined the laser acronym.

In later years, Dr. Maiman moved from California to British Columbia where he worked on the development of biomedical engineering curriculum at Simon Fraser University. He leaves his wife, Kathleen Heath Maiman.

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