Lasers. They’re not just for Dr. Evil anymore.

It’s amazing to believe the laser has only been around for about 50 years. So much depends on lasers, from the read/write heads in our optical drives (think CDs and DVDs), to laser printers, to laser pointers, to laser eye surgery, to lasers driving optical fiber networks, to laser mice for our laptops.

Last week, I received a short press release from HRL Laboratories, a research laboratory jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors:

On November 23 during an employee event at its Malibu facilities, HRL Laboratories will be recognized as an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing signifying where the first working laser was demonstrated more than 50 years ago.
HRL will receive a plaque from IEEE marking the historic event: “On this site in May 1960 Theodore Maiman built and operated the first laser. A number of teams around the world were trying to construct this theoretically anticipated device from different materials. Maiman’s was based on a ruby rod optically pumped by a flash lamp. The laser was a transformative technology in the 20th century and continues to enjoy wide application in many fields of human endeavor.”

Since its first demonstration, more than 55,000 patents involving the laser have been granted in the United States, according to IEEE.

Looking around my office, I see lasers, lasers and more lasers. I remember playing with them in high school and college physics classes, being totally fascinated by the concept of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. This was a big deal.

Early lasers were large, expensive and cranky. And now they’re tiny, cheap throwaway electronics. On my desk is a red laser pointer built into a pen given away at a booth at Oracle OpenWorld. I have a 30 milliwatt, 532 nanometer green laser that I use to aim telescopes. How much would those lasers have cost in, oh, 1970?

Thank you, Dr. Maiman.

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Follow him on Twitter at Read his blog at