Theodore Harold “Ted” Maiman (July 11, 1927 – May 5, 2007) was an American Engineer and physicist credited with the invention of the first working laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Maiman’s laser led to the subsequent development of many other types of lasers. The laser was successfully fired on May 16, 1960. In a July 7, 1960 press conference in Manhattan, Maiman and his employer, Hughes Aircraft Company, announced the laser to the world.
Maiman was granted a patent for his invention, and he received many awards and honors for his work. Maiman’s experiences in developing the first laser and subsequent related events are described in his book, The Laser Odyssey.
Maiman was born in Los Angeles, California, to Abraham “Abe” Maiman, an electrical engineer and inventor, and Rose Abramson. At a young age his family moved to Denver, Colorado, where he helped his father with experimentation in a home electronics laboratory. In his teens Maiman earned money by repairing electrical appliances and radios, and after leaving high school was employed as a junior engineer with the National Union Radio Company at age 17.
Following a year’s service in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, he earned a B.S. in Engineering Physics from the University of Colorado. Maiman then went on to graduate studies at Stanford University where he earned an M.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1951 and a PhD in Physics in 1955. His doctoral thesis in experimental physics involved detailed microwave-optical measurements of fine structural splittings in excited helium atoms; which was instrumental in his development of the laser.
In 1956 Maiman started work with the Atomic Physics Department of the Hughes Aircraft Company (later Hughes Research Laboratories or HRL Laboratories) in California where he led the ruby maser redesign project for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, reducing it from a 2.5-ton cryogenic device to 4 pounds while improving its performance. As a result of this success Maiman persuaded Hughes management to use company funds to support his laser project beginning in mid-1959.
On a total budget of $50,000, Maiman turned to the development of a laser based on his own design with a synthetic ruby crystal, which other scientists seeking to make a laser felt would not work. On May 16, 1960, at Hughes’ Malibu, California, labs, Maiman’s solid-state pink ruby laser emitted mankind’s first coherent light—with rays all the same wavelength and fully in phase. Maiman documented his invention in Nature and published other scholarly articles describing the science and technology underlying his laser.
Maiman had begun conceptualizing a solid-state laser design even before he undertook the maser project at Hughes. Maiman identified multiple flaws in the Schawlow-Townes proposal and pursued his own solid-state design. Other major research groups at IBM, Bell Labs, MIT, Westinghouse, RCA, Columbia University, among others, were also pursuing projects to develop a laser. As Townes later wrote, “Maiman’s laser had several aspects not considered in our theoretical paper, nor discussed by others before the ruby demonstration.”
Later, he joined the newly formed Quantatron company, which grew in-house ruby crystals for lasers. In 1962 Maiman founded and became the president of the Korad Corporation, which manufactured high-power ruby lasers. After Korad was fully acquired by Union Carbide in 1968, Maiman left to found Maiman Associates, a venture capital firm. In 1971 Maiman founded the Laser Video Corporation, and from 1976 to 1983 he worked as vice president for advanced technology at TRW Electronics (now Northrup Grumman).
He later served as consultant to Laser Centers of America, Inc. (now LCA-Vision Inc.) and director of Control Laser Corporation. Maiman continued his involvement in laser developments and applications. In addition to his patent for the first working laser, Maiman authored a number of patents on masers, lasers, laser displays, optical scanning, and modulation.
A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term “laser” originated as an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. Lasers differ from other sources of light because they emit light coherently. Spatial coherence allows a laser to be focused to a tight spot, enabling applications like laser cutting and lithography.
Spatial coherence also allows a laser beam to stay narrow over long distances (collimation), enabling applications such as laser pointers. Lasers can also have hightemporal coherence which allows them to have a very narrow spectrum, i.e., they only emit a single color of light. Temporal coherence can be used to produce pulses of light—as short as a femtosecond.