The cast-off ruby bar brought the big breakthrough

Ted Maiman (Los Angeles, July 11, 1927 – Vancouver, May 5, 2007)

The first time a wide audience was introduced to a laser beam was in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964). In a famous scene, Bond, played by Sean Connery, is tied to a table of gold.

A laser beam that cuts the table in half lengthwise crackles its way between Bond's spread legs.

Bond first uses his phlegm as a weapon and says to Goldfinger, "Thank you for the demonstration." As the beam approaches his crotch, the secret agent gets short of breath and asks, "You expect me to talk?" To which Goldfinger replies, "No, Mr.

Bond, I expect you to die.'
In reality, the table had first been sawn in half and then painted over. Then someone from under the table melted the glue with a torch.

The beam looks like the flame of a welding machine; it also crackles, while a real laser in this case would have produced hardly any heat and no sound.

Killing ray

The laser beam was only four years old at the time. Much to the dismay of inventor Ted Maiman, she had been in the news as a death ray from day one.

Although laser technology is present in many living rooms today via CD player, DVD player, CD burner and fiber optic cable, the connotation with 'death ray' would never completely disappear.

That's how it happened: on July 7, 1960, Maiman's company Hughes Research presented the revolutionary light at a press conference at New York's Delmonico Hotel.

A journalist from The Chicago Tribune asked him afterwards if the laser beam could also be used as a weapon. Maiman: 'I explained to him that I had thought of various uses, to transmit data, for industrial, chemical and medical purposes, but not weapons. He kept insisting – it was my first contact with the media – and I said that laser might be used as a weapon in twenty years. He said, "That's what I wanted to hear." The next day, all the newspapers had the story on the front page: “LA Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray.” One newspaper had used red ink for the occasion. Only The New York Times correctly reported my story.”

The physicist was shocked when the well-known actress Bette Davis asked him at a reception a few months later: "How does it feel to have invented something that brings so much destruction to humanity?" Maiman: "My mouth fell open." The image of the killing ray haunted him for many years. 'I don't know anyone who died from it,' was his standard answer, 'but many who owe their lives to it.'

There is a beautiful photograph of 73-year-old Maiman, in his home in Vancouver, with a large drawing of an Einstein with wild hair on the wall next to him. Many inventors want to flirt with Einstein, but there is indeed a direct connection between Einstein and Maiman.

It was Einstein who demonstrated theoretically as early as 1916 that you can charge atoms with a bombardment of light in such a way that a strong light impulse emerges.

The word 'laser' is an acronym, coming from LASER, which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (literally: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Ruby maser

Ted Maiman was born in 1927 in Los Angeles, but grew up in Denver, Colorado. His father was an electronics engineer who worked for AT&T.

Father Abe Maiman developed, among other things, the first electronic stethoscope. "We hear a lot more," the doctors said, "but we have no idea what to do with those sounds." A statement similar to what son Ted Maiman would hear.

In any case, father Maiman succeeded in transferring his dream of the application of electronics in the medical world to his son. Ted first graduated from Stanford as an electronics engineer, specializing in optics, and then went on to earn a doctorate in physicist.

This combination of practice and theory would later give him a major advantage in scientific research. From 1955 - he was then 28 years old - he was looking for a job.

And that wasn't much of a problem because the US government was pouring billions of dollars into scientific research in those years of the Cold War race with the Soviet Union.

Maiman found work in the Hughes Research Laboratories laboratories of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. He was commissioned to work on the emerging maser (with an m), where the m stands for microwave, ie microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

Maser was the microwave precursor to the laser. An early version of a maser device weighed two tons. Maiman built a ruby maser for the US Army that weighed only two kilograms. The maser worked well with ruby.

Ruby was considered totally unsuitable for generating laser beams, which no one had yet seen. The top experts agreed. "Never accept conventional wisdom," Ted Maiman would later say.

In August 1959, without his employer's approval, he began experimenting with laser technology. Afterwards he was given a meager $50,000 as a budget, which included his own salary, that of his assistants and the equipment.

The Hughes leadership simply had no confidence in it. A young physicist who single-handedly rowed upstream in the revolutionary and unknown study of laser technology? Maiman especially wanted to keep it simple.

According to his reasoning, the experiment with a bar of artificial ruby 2 centimeters long and 1 centimeter in diameter should succeed. You could easily make it disappear in your hand.

At that time the great pioneers, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, had already been working on such an experiment for a year.

Spiral flashlight

Maiman had the idea to surround the rod with a spiral flash light and then pump energy into it. By April 1960, with results in sight, the Hughes company moved all of its assets to Malibu, on the Pacific Ocean.

From his office, Maiman had a view normally reserved for movie stars. But he felt that he had lost weeks of time at a crucial moment.

Together with his technician Irnee D'Haenens, he made the first laser light appear in his office on May 16, 1960 – 44 years after Einstein's article – on a sign against the wall. D'Haenens jumped for joy, Maiman himself felt numb.

He had single-handedly beaten the big labs of Bell Labs (ten times bigger than Hughes Research), and IBM, Siemens, Westinghouse, RCA Labs, General Electric, you name it. In nine months he had forced the long-awaited laser breakthrough.

Maiman possessed the perfect combination in terms of education, he liked simplicity, he resisted what he called the guru effect, the prevailing opinion, and he had a restless, wandering mind that would not be intimidated.
At that time, in 1960, the young physicist had no idea what the rays could be used for. 'We have discovered a great solution,' said Irnee D'Haenens, 'now we are looking for another problem.'

In his 2002 autobiography The Laser Odyssey, Maiman described in detail what happened after that first press conference in July 1960 in New York. There was a deafening silence. The reputable scientific journal Physical Review Letters misjudged the significance of his experiment and refused to publish the account. Maiman was a newcomer and at the same time an outsider in the world of laser technology, which at the time was dominated by researchers such as Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow. They had done all the preparatory work, they had led the way in this research during the 1950s. And now they had been beaten on the line by a pair of 32-year-old shorts. Maiman had stolen their show. All rival laboratories tried to replicate Maiman's work as quickly as possible and to expand the application to other materials. The Bell Laboratories in particular even tried to credit the revolutionary invention to their name.

No Nobel Prize

As early as 1961, melanoma – a form of skin cancer – could be treated with laser beams; shortly afterwards laser was used to 'weld' a torn retina. As his father's heir, those medical applications suited Maiman, but Hughes showed no interest.

So that already in the spring of 1961, Maiman went his own way, founded his own laser application company.

The academic world did not thank him for this early commercialization either. Townes and Schawlow later received the Nobel Prize. Townes as early as 1964 together with two Russians who had done groundbreaking work at about the same time.

Maiman—the man who first raised the light, who proved the theory—was nominated twice, but not honored.
On the first moon landing in 1969, astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin left a retroreflector on the moon. This showed that the light of a laser beam remains so strongly focused that it can bridge the 380,000 kilometers to the moon and bounce back.

The distance could then be calculated with an accuracy of 15 centimetres.

Despite that turbulent start, Maiman has received countless awards throughout his life. In 1984, he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

When he was awarded an honorary doctorate from a Canadian university in 2002, at the age of 75, he told students: 'If you want to take the risk of breaking new ground, you have to appreciate the realities of life.

You will see that the more you deviate from common knowledge and the well-trodden paths, the less likely you are to reach a consensus. Of course, if you achieve your goal by going against the established view of things, victory is sweet.

But even if you don't reach your goal, there is a rich reward for your choice. You will experience the excitement of an adventure. I assure you, it won't be boring.'

In 2000, he was treated by friendly doctors in Munich with laser technology – his technique – on the prostate. The Germans were not a little proud that the inventor of the laser had himself treated in their hospital with his own technique.

More than 50 years later, the medical applications of laser are still more extensive than those in the military field. Maiman was also a fierce opponent of President Ronald Reagan's plan to use laser technology to build a kind of Star Wars defense.

Ted Maiman died in 2007 of a rare genetic blood disorder in Vancouver, Canada, the home of his second wife. He barely turned 80. Among other things, he left behind a foundation that awards grants to promote laser technology in the medical world.