This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of world’s first functional laser, when Theodore Maiman demonstrated the technology at Hughes Research Laboratories on May 16, 1960. As part of the ongoing celebration, we’re taking a look at GE’s work on lasers, starting with the revolutionary breakthrough that came in 1962 with the invention of the semiconductor (diode) laser. Invented by GE scientist Robert Hall, the diode laser’s impact still looms large. In fact, most of the lasers in our daily lives — from CD players, TV remote controls and laser printers in your home to price code scanners in stores — are laser diodes.
|Laser cat: Physicist Robert Hall, the inventor of the laser diode, is seen here in the lab, circa 1963.|
Fundamentally, a laser — which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation — works by using energy, either optically or electrically, to excite a material, which then amplifies light. This light is then directed into a cavity (think of it as light sandwiched between two mirrors), where the light bounces back and forth repeatedly causing even more light to be emitted. Different materials can be used to generate this reaction and operate a laser.
Robert’s breakthrough was to use semi-conductor material to amplify the light. That leap allowed the laser to be more intense and more directed — which is critical when you need to focus the light so that it hits the tiniest of points, such as when reading a CD. As MIT notes on its website: “In 1962, Hall became the envy of his peers when he built the first semiconductor injection laser (patented in 1967 — # 2,994,018)…. he realized that a semiconductor junction could support a simpler, more direct type of laser” that would generate light in a “highly efficient” manner “from a very compact source.”
For the anniversary, Marshall Jones, a 35-year veteran of GE Global Research, interviewed Robert, who gives his perspective on this major invention in the video below. By the time Robert retired from GE Global Research, which is the technology development arm of GE, in 1987, he had received 43 patents and many prestigious honors along the way. In 1994, he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The invention of the diode laser was the first of several major contributions GE scientists have made in the field of laser technology. For example, GE has pioneered the use of lasers in manufacturing — ranging from laser hole drilling in aircraft blades to the first use of lasers for surface treatment of blades for better strength. Lasers are also used to weld filaments for lighting products, lamination spacers for generators and components for X-ray tubes. In recent years, GE has developed new applications of the laser that include the measurement of precision parts in production applications, the repair of power generation parts, and the processing of solar panel materials.
As part of the 50th anniversary, GE scientists specializing in laser technology have launched the “Laser Diode-logues” — a new series on the Research Lab’s technology blog, Edison’s Desk. Upcoming topics include interviews with GE’s laser experts, posts on some of our current laser work in holographic data storage and holographic smart cards — and even GE’s take on whether a Star Wars light saber could really exist.
* Read today’s announcement about the anniversary
* Learn why Bell Labs got the patent even though Hughes made it
* Learn more about the laser at http://www.laserfest.org/
* Read more Global Research stories on GE Reports
* Read “GE’s holographic disc lands “Coolest Tech” award” on GE Reports
* Read “Twenty thousand patents this decade, and counting” on GE Reports