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Web Exhibit Tells Story of Laser's Invention

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Theodore Maiman with ruby cylinder

Theodore Maiman looks at a ruby cylinder, the heart of his first laser experiments, in this publicity shot by Hughes Aircraft Co., July 1960.

Courtesy of HRL Laboratories LLC

Military agencies wanted a death ray, and they were willing to pay for it. That was one of the forces spurring scientists in a race that ended with the invention of the laser in 1960, fifty years ago this May. A new exhibit on the award-winning Web site of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics (AIP) tells the remarkable story of the laser's invention using the voices of the scientists themselves.

"Bright Idea: The First Lasers," which AIP created in cooperation with several leading scientific and engineering societies, is told by noted author and historian Spencer Weart, who worked with the leading historians of lasers to prepare it.

"We wanted to show how difficult and exciting it was to invent the laser," says Weart. "Now you can hear it in the scientists' voices."

In a burst of creativity at the dawn of the space age, rival teams at five American corporations and universities devised three different kinds of lasers. The result was not the death ray weapons imagined in science fiction, but a revolution in communications, entertainment, medicine, and scientific research itself.

The exhibit is enlivened with sound clips from the AIP's collection of oral history interviews of scientists, plus many photographs of people, documents and objects. Viewers can read, see and hear about the curious background of ideas and social forces in the decades of development leading to the first lasers — the half-formed ideas, near-misses, proud triumphs, and bitter controversies over who should get credit.

"The exhibit brings science to life for students and the public," says Gregory A. Good, who is the director of the Center for History of Physics at AIP.

View photos from AIP's Bright Idea exhibit.

Find interviews in audio files, audio clips, transcripts, and video formats.

Peter Franken recalls the excitement of laser discoveries in this audio file, which is 41 seconds long. A transcript of the audio file is also included.

Arthur Schawlow describes his interactions with Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi in this audio file, which is 43 seconds long. A transcript of the audio file is also included.

Elsewhere, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will mark the inventors and uses of lasers in a display entitled "Fifty Years of Lasers" beginning Feb 12. The display is described here.

And LaserFest will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laser through a series of events and programs emphasizing the laser's impact throughout history and highlighting its potential for the future.


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