Laser’s history carries crucial tech war insights

It is received wisdom that technological innovations drive economic growth. How this process works, though, is not well understood. A case in point is the remarkable example of laser technology, which has transformed the global economy.

The laser shares with the transistor the distinction of being one of two inventions that enable the modern technological world. Just a reminder – there would be no Internet without lasers.

Six decades ago Theodore Maiman at the Hughes Research Laboratory demonstrated a ruby crystal lasing device that proved revolutionary. The possibility of light amplification in materials was first discussed by Albert Einstein in a 1917 paper, but it took Maiman to prove Einstein’s theory and demonstrate its practicality in a simple device.

This event opened a flood of laser innovations that continue to this day, with hundreds of different laser types in use that have transformed industries and created new ones. About $80 billion is the annual laser device component revenue. The enabled system revenues are of course much larger.

This amazing progress is the work of innovators solving problems previously thought to be unsolvable. And it was accomplished by dozens of individual innovators working across a large number of organizations, often in startups with funding from the US Defense Department and venture capitalists.

The laser demonstrates the importance of bottom-up research management, in contrast with top-down efforts to force technological breakthroughs. There was never a Manhattan Project to develop lasers, but the transition from laboratory to large-scale markets nonetheless exploded.

Top-down efforts can’t identify the unknown unknowns. Creative mavericks pursuing their own initiatives made the key discoveries that large organizations later were able to commercialize.

Funded by private capital and sometimes by big corporations as separate entities, as many as 50 new companies were launched after 1960 focused on lasers and their applications.

Warburg Pincus was among the adventurous private equity firms that invested in a spinout from the California Institute of Technology that was later acquired by Lucent. This was a common pattern – startups with great ideas were acquired by established companies with the resources to commercialize them.

The US government played a key role. Federal research contracts were granted by different agencies to many academic and commercial organizations, including startups, leading to a flood of innovations. The diversity resulted in a great deal of parallel research that benefitted the technology development.

Also important was that information was widely shared at industry conferences and journals. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the largest engineering organization in the world, was particularly active.

I had the privilege of founding the IEEE Photonics Society, which sponsored conferences attracting thousands of researchers, and also the Journal of Lightwave Technology, which became the leading scientific journal in the field. Promising results became widely known, encouraging global research.

Initially, military applications were successful. An early one used lasers as target designators for airborne missiles. The target was illuminated by a laser spot and a launched missile would find its way to the target by imaging the laser beam. Such products required integrated system and device development that was conducted by large corporations such as Hughes Aircraft.

 

In fact, the ability to combine within a single organization research, product development and manufacturing was an important factor for product success. For example, a major industrial innovator was the Western Electric division of AT&T, which used the results of research to develop laser systems for welding and drilling.

The rate of innovation was enormous. Lasing devices were demonstrated, using different crystals and gases and emitting at a wide variety of power levels and emission wavelengths. But all were bulky – typically one foot in length or more.

The demonstration of the first tiny semiconductor laser in 1962 was revolutionary. As a result of research at RCA, MIT-Lincoln Labs, General Electric and IBM, a semiconductor laser device a few millimeters long was demonstrated, but with big handicaps. It operated only at very low temperatures and failed after short operating times and hence was practically useless.

I became involved in semiconductor laser research at RCA Laboratories by accident. In 1967, the scientist conducting research showed me a laser that operated for only a short time. When I inquired whether anyone knew why they failed, I was told that short life  appeared to be inherent in such high-current-density devices.

When he left RCA suddenly, I continued the laser program with a small team (no one else was interested) that was funded by the US Signal Corps. We determined the cause of laser failure and invented new laser structures that operated reliably with high efficiency at room temperature. We also  devised manufacturing techniques that were transferred to a product division.

As a result, RCA announced the first commercial  semiconductor lasers in 1969. The first application was as a detection device in Sidewinder air to air missiles. When reflected light reached the missile from  a near aircraft  target in flight, it triggered the missile explosion.

There is now a civilian application for this LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology that is used in autonomous vehicles to avoid collisions by detecting nearby vehicles.