pumping rare-earth ions in calcium fluoride. None made
Ironically, the most encouraging results came from a field
Bell had just phased out—gas discharge physics. Hired in
mid-1958 after working with Townes at Columbia, Ali Javan
proposed making a laser by exciting helium atoms with a gas
discharge and having them transfer the energy to neon atoms
to produce a population inversion. By mid-1959, he reported
modest progress, and he lured Bill Bennett from Yale to join
TRG and military research
Bell found itself competing with Technical Research Group
Inc.—a small defense contracting lab that had landed a
$999,000 contract from the then-new Advanced Research
Projects Agency based on Gordon Gould’s proposal to build
TRG employed about 50 people, mostly highly educated
engineers and scientists. They specialized in cost-plus-fixed-fee
government contracts that paid reasonable salaries to employees and earned the company a few percent profit. “It was quite
novel at the time,” recalls Paul Rabinowitz, who worked with
Gould. Relying largely on contracts around $25,000, the little
company couldn’t afford internal research like Bell’s.
TRG had to hire more people to work on the laser contract.
The government supplied plenty of World War II surplus
equipment, plus cash for some new instruments, including a
huge $25,000 spectrometer. Although we think of small companies as fast-moving and flexible, TRG’s progress was slowed
by administrative and security issues, particularly the Pentagon’s refusal to grant Gould a security clearance to work on the
project he had proposed.
Hughes Research Labs
Hughes’s size and financial backing made it a different world
from TRG. The company made enough money from contract
research to support some internal research, typically aimed at
securing more contracts. Theodore Maiman received internal
funding after building a four-pound ruby microwave maser
cooled by liquid nitrogen, scoring a big success on an Air Force
contract to shrink an earlier 2.5-ton version. A logical follow-on project was developing an optically pumped ruby maser,
which he expected to reduce noise. Yet Maiman was intrigued
by the quest for an optical laser.
Maiman wasn’t convinced, as Schawlow had been, that
ruby wouldn’t work as a laser material. To see what was causing ruby’s reported low fluorescence efficiency, Maiman had
to persuade his department head, Harold Lyons, to approve
buying a $1,500 monochromator. The instrument showed that
ruby actually had very high fluorescence efficiency, tipping
Maiman’s mental scale toward making a laser. His calculations showed that the brightest available arc lamp could barely
pump a continuous ruby laser, but that a pulsed photographic
Hughes’s PR firm hired a photographer who liked to capture
people behind their inventions. But the first laser was too
small, so he insisted on using a larger flashlamp and ruby rod.
When other researchers tried to duplicate Maiman’s work,
they used this larger flashlamp to pump their ruby rods.
flashlamp could easily reach threshold. He ordered three
coiled flashlamps from a catalog and designed a laser.
At this point, Maiman ran into a major drawback of
corporate research—management. He was clashing with
Lyons, who doubted the laser would work. Maiman took
advantage of the organizational chaos in moving from Culver City to Malibu to avoid Lyons until he and his assistant
Irnee D’Haenens demonstrated the laser on May 16, 1960.
Maiman later estimated that Hughes spent only about
$50,000 on his nine-month laser project.
The experiment convinced Lyons, who, early the next morning, suggested that Maiman issue a press release. But Maiman
insisted on more tests to confirm his results first. After his
paper was accepted, Hughes pushed ahead with a press conference. That led to another fight between Maiman and Lyons
because Lyons had wanted to make the announcement himself.
Upper management backed Maiman, however, and Lyons left
Hughes shortly thereafter. The company’s public-relations firm
hired a photographer who insisted on posing Maiman behind
a mock-up of the laser that used a larger flashlamp and a laser
rod (which had never worked). That photo and newspaper
accounts provided all the information that TRG needed to
make its own ruby laser within a few weeks after the July 7
press conference. Bell and others were close behind.
In the aftermath, Hughes promoted Maiman to section
head, and the Air Force gave Hughes a contract to develop
bigger lasers for use as optical radars.
IBM and the second laser
IBM hired Peter Sorokin and Mirek Stevenson to work with
William V. Smith on exploratory solid-state research, with
potential electronics applications. They started studying