May 16 – Glass Cutter

Today’s factismal: The maser was invented in 1953. The optical maser was invented in 1960.

It is hard to think of an invention with as many uses as the optical maser in today’s world. We use optical masers to clear cataracts from eyes and burn out cancer. We use optical masers to measure and cut fabric for clothes and wood for homes. We use optical masers to send information around the world at the speed of light. We use optical masers to store and retrieve information. We use optical masers to ring up prices in stores.  And we even use optical masers to play with our pets! But you may not be familiar with the optical maser under its original name; today, we mostly call it a laser.

The first device capable of lasing (Image courtesy Radio-Electronic Engineering magazine)

The first device capable of lasing, invented in 1958
(Image courtesy Radio-Electronic Engineering magazine)

Lasers were first described by Einstein way back in 1917 but it would take another 36 years before the first working laser would be created. Because microwave light has a much longer wavelength than visible light, the first laser was made in 1953 using microwave light reflected through a container of ammonia gas. Since it used Microwave light for Amplification and Stimulated Emission of Radiation, the device was commonly called a maser. Later masers would use a ruby crystal, the same medium that would be used for the first visible Light for Amplification and Stimulated Emission of Radiation (laser) in 1960. And since the two devices used the same scientific principle and only differed in which part of the light spectrum they amplified, the newer laser was originally called an optical maser.

Today lasers cover a wide range of colors from gamma ray to microwave (Image courtesy Danh)

Today lasers cover a wide range of colors from gamma ray to microwave
(Image courtesy Danh)

The much shorter wavelength of visible light allowed the laser to do a lot of things that a maser couldn’t.  Scientists could make a much shorter laser pulse than they could a maser pulse, which allowed them to measure things very accurately and to carry a considerable amount of information. Laser could also carry energy much more densely than masers. As a result, lasers soon became the tool of choice and masers were relegated to a few specialized uses such as high-precision timekeeping. So when you celebrate the invention of the laser today, don’t forget that it was actually invented in 1953.

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