Patent of the Month of May
The invention of laser beams
The point in time at which an invention was created only rarely can be as precisely determined as for the development of the laser. On May 16th in 1960, Theodore H. Maiman was the first to use a flash discharge lamp and a ruby crystal to focus light waves so sharply, that they emitted a coherent, i.e. uninterrupted beam - with a radiation intensity unmatched until then. The first laser was born! In fact, the invention is so significant that UNESCO even celebrates the date each year with the International Day of Light. Maiman and his employer at this time, Hughes Aircraft, applied for a patent on the operating principle in 1961. It was granted in 1967 titled "Ruby Laser Systems" (US3353115) - our patent of the Month for May!
The name "laser" is derived from the functional description: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. When Maiman published the research results, considered one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, in the prestigious scientific journal "Nature" in 1960, practical application was initially lacking. "A solution looking for its problem", Maiman is reported to have said about his development. It was not until Maiman's invention was successfully applied as a light precision tool in optical surgery that a veritable research boom began for further uses of the laser.
The engineer and physicist Maiman was born in Los Angeles in 1927. With his fundamental research work for the Hughes Research Laboratories, owned by the legendary billionaire, "Aviator" and film producer Howard Hughes, he took up the work of the physicists Albert Einstein and Charles Townes. Einstein established the theoretical principles at the beginning of the 20th century with his interpretation of the photoelectric effect.
In the 1950s, the idea of stimulating a material so that it is capable of emitting electromagnetic radiation was pushed further by Charles Townes and his colleagues Gordon and Zeiger at the American Bell Laboratories. They invented the “Maser” ("Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation"), a microwave amplifier for use in satellite technology; Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this in 1964. Theodore Maiman then became the first to extend the basic idea of the maser to a system that uses visible light.
Other types of lasers, based on gases, dyes or fibres, followed. Modern materials science in particular expanded the possible applications with the development of semiconductor laser diodes for communication and consumer electronics. Today, the laser is an indispensable instrument in many areas of application - either at the checkout in the supermarket, as a "pointer" in presentations, a precision tool in industrial manufacturing or in medical technology - and thus its potential has not yet been exhausted.
The Patent & Standards Centre is wishing illuminating flashes of inspiration in the month of May!
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