Born on July 11, 1927, in Los Angeles, California, Theodore Harold Maiman became familiar with electronics at an early age. His father, an electrical engineer and inventor who was employed at Bell Labs for several years, was responsible for firing his interest. This was so strong that when the younger Maiman was only 12 years old, he was skilled enough to be given a job fixing valve devices. At 14, he was in charge of the company’s shop and earning money that would help him pay for his undergraduate education at the University of Colorado, which awarded him a B.S. in engineering physics in 1949. Deciding to embark on a course of graduate study, Maiman briefly attended Columbia University before being accepted at Stanford. During his years at Stanford, Maiman carried out graduate work under Willis Lamb, a Nobel laureate. He received his Ph.D. in physics in 1955.
When his formal education was complete, Maiman began work at the Hughes Research Laboratory (HRL). There he concentrated on creating a device capable of converting mixed frequency electromagnetic radiation into highly amplified and coherent light of discrete frequency. A similar device, known as the maser (an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), had been built by Charles H. Townes in 1953 for the amplification of microwaves rather than visible light. Since then there had been significant speculation about whether or not light could be amplified in an analogous manner, spawning investigations into the matter at a number of different research institutions, including HRL. Townes and his associate Arthur Schawlow had suggested that light amplification could possibly be achieved through the use of alkaline vapors. But neither they nor anyone else had completed a working apparatus by the time Maiman began his experiments in the field.
Maiman did not pursue the route suggested by Townes and Schawlow, preferring to experiment with solids rather than gases. He was particularly interested in employing ruby to achieve the desired amplification, despite the fact that several other scientists had already discounted its suitability for such a task. In his consideration of the matter, Maiman discovered that the accepted calculations of the fluorescence quantum efficiency of ruby were wrong and that the material could be suitable for his purposes after all. His persistence with ruby eventually paid off, for on May 16, 1960, the device he built using it became the world’s first operable laser (acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
The ruby used in Maiman’s laser was in the form of a small synthetic rod with silvered ends. When he exposed the rod to light generated by strobe lamps, the chromium atoms in the ruby rod became excited, and an internal chain reaction was triggered. In this reaction, photons released by the excited atoms were reflected back and forth between the two silvered ends of the rod, resulting in additional atom excitation and photon release. Eventually the stimulated emission produced enough energy for a pulse of photons to break through one of the silvered ends of the ruby rod, producing a narrow beam of monochromatic light with a wavelength of approximately 694 nanometers.
Ironically, Maiman’s first paper announcing this momentous achievement, which many other scientists had been racing to complete themselves, was rejected by Physical Review Letters. He submitted a shorter version, entitled “Stimulated optical radiation in ruby”, to the journal Nature in the United Kingdom, which published the paper in August of 1960. Despite his initial publication setback, Maiman firmly believed in the tremendous potential of his laser for practical use. Hence, Maiman left HRL in 1962 to found his own company, the Korad Corporation, which specialized in laser production and research. Union Carbide acquired Korad in 1968, freeing Maiman to establish a second laser-related company, Maiman Associates. A few years later, he founded a third company, Laser Video Corporation, which specialized in developing laser-based video display systems, and in 1976 Maiman accepted a vice presidential position at TRW.
Since Maiman’s invention of the laser, a wide variety of uses for the device have been discovered. Lasers have been used for surgery, welding, special effects, barcode scanners, fiber optics, teeth whitening and reading CDs and DVDs, to name just a few applications. Maiman’s impact on the world has been considerable. In honor of his laser work he has received multiple awards, including the Buckley Solid State Physics Prize from the American Physical Society, the Wood Prize from the American Optical Society, the President's Award from the International Society for Optical Engineering, and the Japan Prize. He has also been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2000, Maiman published his account of the invention of the laser as The Laser Odyssey.