The invention and development of the laser carries important lessons for technological advancement. Image: Wikipedia

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.

Dr. Theodore Maiman, of Hughes Research Laboratories, studies a ruby crystal in the shape of a cube in a laser (Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation) which is the essential element in a new electronic device. Image: Wikimedia

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.

Lasers have a growing number of military applications. Image: Facebook

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.

A laser strike at the Galactic Center. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

We focused a great deal of research, however, on lasers for fiber optic communications, which required new structures and very high reliability. In the 1970s, using fibers from Corning, we built demonstration systems and invented new lasers with projected reliable operation as long as 100,000 hours – a necessity in communications systems.

By the late 1980s, semiconductor lasers had developed from laboratory curiosities to strategic products – but not until the 1990s were fiber optic communications systems deployed globally, as the technology matured and costs came down.

Research activity was intense worldwide. Researchers working largely alone continued to make major contributions. The best example was in Japan where Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura invented the first practical blue-light-emitting lasers – for which they earned a Nobel Prize. These lasers enabled DVD players as readout devices on disks, among other important applications

Nobelist Shuji Nakamura with blue-light laser. Photo: Wikipedia

Other lasers also progressed rapidly. Devices using gases and crystals improved continuously over the years, emitting from the ultraviolet to the far infrared, enabling new applications of which the medical ones were particularly noteworthy. They enabled unique new approaches to surgery and the development of robotic systems for certain procedures.

In manufacturing, lasers became standard equipment. They eventually found their way into production of ultra-small (measured in nanometers – billionths of meters) chips using ultraviolet lasers.

Other new applications include  autonomous vehicle control and quantum computing systems.

Talking of the esoteric, special lasers enable systems that have detected gravitational waves originating in massive space galaxy collisions.

 What can be learned from the laser history about stimulating valuable  technology development?

First, that history shows the value of open information flows with many research centers communicating their results in conferences and publications.

Second, federal research funding was essential because corporate funding only became substantial when practical applications emerged. Such applications often emerged because of the work of innovators achieving the unexpected. Many of them worked in small academic or industrial startup teams that had limited funds and federal funding was essential. The role of DARPA was particularly important in funding new ideas.

Third, of great importance was integrating research results with product development and manufacturing. Great ideas eventually reached the market because many companies incorporated organizations that spanned the areas. In cases where this was not the case, big companies acquired smaller, innovative ones and moved the commercialization process along.

Fourth, venture capital was a source of risk funding that allowed many innovators to launch their ideas.

Lasers are a marvel of venture capital. Image: Facebook

Finally, the history of the laser is testimony to the importance of nurturing individual creativity. Many of the breakthroughs came from scientists and technologists working on their own initiative, free from controlling management committees and straitjacketed group think.

This has important implications for the present technological competition between the US and China.

At this month’s National People’s Congress, China proposed a $560 billion annual technology development budget—a huge sum by any measure and even larger than the headline sum appears because the cost of high-tech talent is much lower in China than in the United States.

But the Chinese system favors top-down “Manhattan Project” approaches to solving big problems. Historically, America has been more hospitable to the mavericks and eccentrics who make the unexpected discoveries that no planning could have anticipated.