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How photonics is changing the world

Photonics was born before the invention of the laser.

Photonics impacts every aspect of people’s lives. It will drive major applications in the 21st century.

When Theodore Maiman discovered the laser in 1960, he did not consider it an important invention. “It is a solution looking for a problem,” he had said. The American physicist-engineer was then working at the Hughes Aircraft Company and had used a pink ruby crystal to generate a laser beam, a method that most scientists thought would not work. Maiman had built on the scientific foundations laid by five decades of physicists. Albert Einstein, the most important of them all, had in 1905 showed that a material could emit electrons when hit by light particles. He subsequently worked out a quantum theory of radiation based on his discovery, and this paper became the basis of laser development four decades later. 

Within years of Maiman’s invention with the ruby crystal, scientists developed other kinds of lasers with different materials. The technology improved rapidly, with uses in diverse fields. In 1967, Peter Houldcroft of The Welding Institute in Cambridge, England, used a carbon dioxide laser — emitted by a carbon dioxide molecule — to cut through steel that was one millimetre thick. The carbon dioxide laser had been invented three years earlier by C. Kumar Patel of Bell Labs. It packed enormous power into a tiny spot and became an indispensable tool in several industries. With this invention, the 1970s saw an increase in industrial applications for laser. The technology was soon being used to read out information in storage devices. By the 1980s, scientists were using lasers to modify organic materials such as plastic.


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