Maiman, Theodore

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Maiman, Theodore

Born Theodore H. Maiman, July 11, 1927, in Los Angeles, CA; died May 5, 2007, of systemic masto-cytosis, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Physicist and electrical engineer. Physicist Theodore Maiman built the world’s first working laser, which many journalists labeled a death ray. Despite the label, Maiman, and many others who followed, found uses for lasers, especially in the medical field. Maiman spent most of his adult life proving that lasers were beneficial to humanity.

Maiman was in 1927 in Los Angeles, California. His father was an electrical engineer who wanted his son to become a doctor. Maiman wanted to be a comedian. He also had a love of math and eventually switched aspirations. Maiman earned a bachelors degree from the University of Colorado, paying for his tuition by fixing radios and other appliances. Maiman went on to earn a masters degree in engineering physics and also a doctorate from Stanford University. His advisor was Willis Lamb, who earned the Nobel Physics Prize in 1955, the same year Maiman earned his Ph.D.

In 1954, physicist Charles Townes changed the scientific world with a device to concentrate and intensify electromagnetic energy. The machine was called a maser because it used microwave energy. Townes alluded that a machine could be built that used light in the same way. This set off a scurry to invent that machine. Maiman and his employer, Hughes Research Laboratories, were among those in the race.

Many believe the invention of the laser was a group effort. Townes and Arthur L. Schawlow held a patent for the theory. Gordon Gould held a patent that contained important concepts and he also coined the term laser, which is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Maiman, however, actually built the device. He was given nine months and $50,000 by Hughes, plus an assistant. “It was almost a bootleg project for me. They tried to pull funding from me twice,” he told a Vancouver reporter, the Washington Post recounted.

Lasers amplify light waves of atoms stimulated to radiate and then these atoms are concentrated into an intense beam. Maiman used a high-powered flash lamp and a synthetic ruby, all of which fit in the palm of his hand. His first successful test of the laser was on May 16, 1960. He tried to publish his findings in an American scientific journal, but was turned down; however, his paper was accepted by the British journal, Nature. A press conference was also held.

At the time, no one had any theoretically good reasons for lasers to be used so journalists called the laser a death ray. Maiman thought the laser could be used in the medical field, but spent much of his time defending his discovery to a fearful public. He thought Hughes would further develop the laser, but that did not go as expected. Maiman was also overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Physics, which was awarded to Townes and Schawlow.

Maiman soon left Hughes and started his own company, the Korad Corporation. He soon found many uses for the laser and his company was later bought out by Union Carbide. Not one to rest on his laurels, Maiman co-founded Laser Video Corporation and followed that with Maiman Associates. In 2000, he published The Laser Odyssey, a retelling of the events surrounding his construction of the first laser.

Maiman was awarded many honors and awards for his discovery and its practical uses, including the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize in 1966, the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics in 1983-84, and the Japan Prize in 1987. He was inducted into the American National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1984 and elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Maiman, who suffered from systemic mastocytosis, succumbed to the disease on May 5, 2007, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 79. A daughter preceded him in death, and he is survived by his second wife, a stepdaughter, and a grandchild. Despite early skepticism of lasers, many uses evolved thanks to Maiman’s discovery and subsequent work. Laser applications include CD and DVD play ers, industrial machines for cutting steel, missile guidance systems, and medical tools used for cataract and stomach ulcer surgery. Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 13, 2007, sec. 4, pg. 6; Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007, p. B10; New York Times, May 11, 2007, p. C10; Times (London), May 15, 2007, p. 64; Washington Post, May 10, 2007, p. B7.

—Ashyia N. Henderson