The first news report of the laser (1960)

So this year is the 60 year anniversary of the invention of the laser, which was finally accomplished by Theodore Maiman on May 16, 1960 (mark your calendar!).  I recently wrote a blog post about the physics and history of the laser to commemorate the occasion; I will share a link to it when it appears.

But one thing I came across while working on the post? The first newspaper article announcing the discovery! The article, written by Ralph Dighton for the Associated Press, was syndicated and appeared across the country around October 16, 1960. Of course, coming from such an important source of news, I’m sure it was a very subdued and unsensational take on the disc… oh, no.

I thought I should write a short post sharing some of the most lurid highlights from the article, which really made me chuckle.

The subheading of the article is “Satellite with ray could control Earth,” which really starts to give the reader an H.G. Wells War of the Worlds vibe, I would say. The introduction is no less dramatic:

A GIANT magnifying glass, orbiting the earth, setting cities ablaze with the focused rays of the sun.

The science-fiction superweapon is a toy compared to what some envision from a new development in the field of science.

Recent disclosure of working models of radiation-amplifying devices indicates man may be closer to the secrets of death rays, disintegrators and ray guns than you think.

A bit of a hysterical description, no? Hopefully Theodore Maiman himself will calm things down in his interview–oh no

Asked if his new LASER itself could produce a “death ray,” Dr. Maiman said “I don’t know. I haven’t done enough research — there simply isn’t enough information at the moment to be sure.

“I do know that a number of laboratories are working with destructive radiation but any information I might have about their work would be classified.”

Nice job, Theodore.

The article isn’t all about the evil applications, however. Still quoting Maiman,

YET THAT BEAM, he says, is powerful enough to cut through human tissue with a precision now impossible. He sees a great future for it in brain surgery, and removal of cancers.

Here, Maiman was definitely prescient. Lasers have of course become a standard tool in a variety of surgeries, such as LASIK eye surgery and lumbar surgery, used to vaporize tissue pressing on nerves.

A 40 W CO2 surgical laser. Photograph by Etan J. Tal, via Wikipedia.

But after looking at the beneficial uses of lasers, the article descends again into ominous visions of the future:

He leaves to your imagination what would happen if a device successfully controlled heat, ultra-violet or X-rays.

Today, we don’t need to use our imagination. UV lasers are used for cutting materials, micro-lithography, and the aforementioned LASIK.  X-ray lasers are used for both medical imaging, and high-resolution microscopy.

Laser weapons haven’t been as successful or prevalent as early researchers and journalists feared, however. A big problem is the atmosphere: a beam of visible light traveling through the atmosphere gets degraded by atmopsheric turbulence, which distorts the shape of the beam and reduces its intensity, and thermal blooming, in which the high intensity of the laser beam creates a plasma in the atmosphere that degrades the beam further. Tests are ongoing, however, in militaries around the world.

But this wasn’t on the minds of journalists in 1960. Ralph Dighton explained his sub-headline as:

A SATELLITE equipped with a LASER-like device using more harmful rays conceivably would have the world at its mercy.

This was presumably part of the thinking in Reagan’s now infamous Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative, aimed at giving us an orbital defense against nuclear missiles. One aspect of the program, Project Excalibur, planned to use nuclear weapons in space to produce energy for X-ray lasers that would then shoot down targeted missiles. The idea was explored through underground nuclear tests, but never achieved positive results; it was fortunately canceled in 1992.

Concept art of Excalibur firing, from Joseph Nilsen, “Legacy of the X-ray Laser Program,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory report.

The AP article ends with one more hint of impending doom that has yet to appear:

His new LASER is the size of a flashlight. Does that remind you of the ray guns of science fiction?

I find this article somewhat amusing because there is always a tendency for some sensationalism in journalism. Though the AP article is well-written and filled with accurate descriptions of the science of the laser, the author couldn’t resist elaborating on the most shocking possibilities. When you read articles online these days that were written “for the clicks,” keep in mind that this isn’t really a new phenomenon.

This entry was posted in ... the Hell?, History of science, Optics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The first news report of the laser (1960)

  1. Mark says:

    This reminds me of another cringe-inducing science news article: the NY Times’ report on Eddington’s 1919 eclipse observation. It’s not as sensationalistic (“stars are out of place” notwithstanding), but it’s annoying that a 14-paragraph article calls Einstein’s theories incomprehensible to the layman 5 times (7 including the subheadlines).

    Then again, there’s a story that Eddington was approached by a reporter who said that only three people understood Relativity. Eddington pondered silently for a time. When the reporter asked what he thought, Eddington said, “I’m trying to think of who the third person is.”

    The last annoying thing about the article is the unexamined skeptics’ comments in the third to last paragraph. It’s on par with “Scientists say the Earth is round, but other people are saying …”.

  2. harrync says:

    Stanford freshman physics, fall, 1960. Prof. Panofsky arrives at class with a Disney balloon: a black Mickey Mouse balloon inside a plain clear oval balloon. He takes out his laser, and uses it to pop the Mickey balloon without damaging the clear oval ballon. The explanation: he had focused it about a foot away from the source, so the beam was still spread out enough at the clear balloon surface not to harm it, but focused to a point at the Mickey balloon inside it. So yes, ray guns work – at least on Mickey Mouse balloons.

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