Who Invented the Laser?

On July 9, 1968, inventor Fred Schollhammer earned a U.S. patent for a “portable beam generator.”  This small, gun-shaped device would utilize “an energized beam” for “melting or partial vaporization.”  Though Schollhammer never actually constructed such an apparatus, its design has been replicated in countless science fiction movies.

In the real world, American physicist Gordon Gould (whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow) waged an epic battle against the U.S. government for recognition as the inventor of the laser.

Albert Einstein first theorized in 1917 that energized atoms could amplify radiation.  In 1953, scientists successfully amplified microwaves to create the first “maser” (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”).

The race was on to accomplish the same amplification with visible light.  Gould was the first to coin the term “laser” (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) as a graduate student in 1959.  But he mistakenly believed that he had to build a working model before he could apply for a patent.  As a result, others filed first.

Gould promptly sued the Patent Office, claiming his detailed notebooks proved he was “first to invent.”  What followed was one of the most historic patent battles in U.S. history, lasting 30 years.

Companies including Bell Labs, Hughes Research Labs and Westinghouse did not want to pay royalties on what rapidly became a $400 million laser industry.  They claimed Gould’s notes were incomplete, and filed numerous countersuits.  It was not until 1985 that a Federal Court ordered the Patent Office to grant Gould a patent for an important laser component.  Gould would ultimately earn 48 patents related to lasers.

Ironically, if Gould had been granted his original patent, the industry may never have taken off as freely as it did.  But because of the 30-year delay, Gould instead earned millions of dollars in retroactive royalties.

Today, lasers are widely used throughout science and industry, including manufacturing, communications, electronics, chemistry and biology.  Agilent’s predecessor, Hewlett-Packard, marketed the first commercial desktop laser printer.  Agilent’s electronic measurement spin-off, Keysight, has a business devoted to optical laser source products.  And Agilent uses lasers in its SureScan high-resolution microarray scanners.

But who actually invented the laser?  The answer remains controversial to this day.


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