On August 6, 1960, Hughes Research Laboratories scientist Theodore Maiman published a study in Nature (pdf) describing his experiments with "stimulated optical radiation in ruby." (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) With this research, he took the laser—originally "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation"—out of the realm of science fiction and created a tool that would change the world in ways few people could have conceived of at the time.
These possibilities tantalized many companies, including General Motors, Boeing and Raytheon, each of which has owned a piece of Hughes Research Laboratories over the past few decades. The lab, established by Howard Hughes in the 1940s to do research and development for his Hughes Aircraft Company, has since been renamed HRL Laboratories and is still jointly owned by GM and Boeing (Raytheon sold its stake in 2007).
In 1979, Daniel Nieuwsma and, later that year, Bob Byren joined Hughes Aircraft Company's Laser Engineering Division with the hope of developing new types of lasers and new ways of using the technology. Whereas Malibu, Calif.–based Hughes Research Laboratories was the company's research arm, anything that promised to have a practical application came down to Hughes Aircraft Company, located in Culver City, Calif.
The U.S. military at that time was interested in the laser for its ability to improve radar, guide long-range weapons and potentially serve as a weapon itself. However, Nieuwsma, now senior principal physicist for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems' (SAS) Optics and Lasers Department, and Byren, principal engineering fellow and technology area director for electro-optical, infrared and laser technology at SAS, recognized the technology's potential in other areas, including communications, electronics and medicine.
Scientific American recently spoke with Nieuwsma and Byren about the laser's past, present and future.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Was the purpose for building the first laser to prove theories put forward by Einstein, Planck and other scientists regarding radiation, or did the Hughes researchers have a more practical application in mind?
Nieuwsma: Hughes' and Ted Maiman's laser work was an evolution of MASER [Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation] work from the 1940s and '50s that tried to create more powerful microwave sources to improve things like the capability of radar systems. [Maiman] worked his way up to the laser [which uses light waves] as a way to get even more power.
Byren: With light, even though there are some limitations on transmission related to atmospheric conditions, you're operating on three orders of magnitude higher than microwaves in terms of frequency, with 1,000 times better resolution, meaning you can pack 1,000 times more information into light waves than into microwaves. The increase in frequency is also an advantage in bandwidth in terms of [transmitting] information. That's the whole idea behind fiber optics technology.
So the laser was not a solution in search of a problem, as has been said in the past?
Nieuwsma: When the laser was first developed no one could have possibly envisioned the number of uses we see today. Maybe that's really where the criticism of the technology came from.
Byren: It was a little bit chicken-and-egg. In the popular press, people were talking about laser weapons, and when those didn't materialize, people wondered what it could be used for. Meanwhile, in the background, scientists were working on this.
When each of you started with Hughes in 1979, what type of laser work were you doing?
Nieuwsma: I was hired to help bring in some of the lasers out of the labs and into production. Part of this was using lasers to make range finders or target designators that soldiers could use on the ground to illuminate a target for aircraft. A laser seeker attached to a bomb could fly into the illumination made by the laser. Lasers were mostly used as sensors and for precision munitions targeting to get exactly what you're aiming at more accurately.
Byren: I was already working in the field of dazzlers [which were designed to be non-lethal weapons that caused temporary blindness or disorientation]. From there, I went on to laser radar and 3-D laser imaging that could be used to guide autonomous vehicles like cruise missiles. We could use a single sensor to look at the three-dimensional outline of a target or object of interest.