In 1917, Albert Einstein established the theoretic foundations for the laser and the maser in the paper Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation); via a re-derivation of Max Planck’s law of radiation, conceptually based upon probability coefficients (Einstein coefficients) for the absorption, spontaneous emission, and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation; in 1928, Rudolf W. Ladenburg confirmed the existences of the phenomena of stimulated emission and negative absorption; in 1939, Valentin A. Fabrikant predicted the use of stimulated emission to amplify “short” waves; in 1947, Willis E. Lamb and R. C. Retherford found apparent stimulated emission in hydrogen spectra and effected the first demonstration of stimulated emission; in 1950, Alfred Kastler (Nobel Prize for Physics 1966) proposed the method of optical pumping, experimentally confirmed, two years later, by Brossel, Kastler, and Winter.
In 1953, Charles Hard Townes and graduate students James P. Gordon and Herbert J. Zeiger produced the first microwave amplifier, a device operating on similar principles to the laser, but amplifying microwave radiation rather than infrared or visible radiation. Townes's maser was incapable of continuous output. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov were independently working on the quantum oscillator and solved the problem of continuous-output systems by using more than two energy levels. These gain media could release stimulated emissions between an excited state and a lower excited state, not the ground state, facilitating the maintenance of a population inversion. In 1955, Prokhorov and Basov suggested optical pumping of a multi-level system as a method for obtaining the population inversion, later a main method of laser pumping.
Townes reports that several eminent physicists — among them Niels Bohr, John von Neumann, Isidor Rabi, Polykarp Kusch, and Llewellyn Thomas — argued the maser violated Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and hence could not work. In 1964 Charles H. Townes, Nikolay Basov, and Aleksandr Prokhorov shared the Nobel Prize in Physics, “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser–laser principle”.
In 1957, Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow, then at Bell Labs, began a serious study of the infrared laser. As ideas developed, they abandoned infrared radiation to instead concentrate upon visible light. The concept originally was called an "optical maser". In 1958, Bell Labs filed a patent application for their proposed optical maser; and Schawlow and Townes submitted a manuscript of their theoretical calculations to the Physical Review, published that year in Volume 112, Issue No. 6.
Simultaneously, at Columbia University, graduate student Gordon Gould was working on a doctoral thesis about the energy levels of excited thallium. When Gould and Townes met, they spoke of radiation emission, as a general subject; afterwards, in November 1957, Gould noted his ideas for a “laser”, including using an open resonator (later an essential laser-device component). Moreover, in 1958, Prokhorov independently proposed using an open resonator, the first published appearance (the USSR) of this idea. Elsewhere, in the US, Schawlow and Townes had agreed to an open-resonator laser design — apparently unaware of Prokhorov’s publications and Gould’s unpublished laser work.
At a conference in 1959, Gordon Gould published the term LASER in the paper The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Gould’s linguistic intention was using the “-aser” word particle as a suffix — to accurately denote the spectrum of the light emitted by the LASER device; thus x-rays: xaser, ultraviolet: uvaser, et cetera; none established itself as a discrete term, although “raser” was briefly popular for denoting radio-frequency-emitting devices.
Gould’s notes included possible applications for a laser, such as spectrometry, interferometry, radar, and nuclear fusion. He continued developing the idea, and filed a patent application in April 1959. The U.S. Patent Office denied his application, and awarded a patent to Bell Labs, in 1960. That provoked a twenty-eight-year lawsuit, featuring scientific prestige and money as the stakes. Gould won his first minor patent in 1977, yet it was not until 1987 that he won the first significant patent lawsuit victory, when a Federal judge ordered the US Patent Office to issue patents to Gould for the optically pumped and the gas discharge laser devices.
On May 16, 1960, Theodore H. Maiman operated the first functioning laser, at Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu, California, ahead of several research teams, including those of Townes, at Columbia University, Arthur Schawlow, at Bell Labs, and Gould, at the TRG (Technical Research Group) company. Maiman’s functional laser used a solid-state flashlamp-pumped synthetic ruby crystal to produce red laser light, at 694 nanometres wavelength; however, the device only was capable of pulsed operation, because of its three-level pumping design scheme. Later in 1960, the Iranian physicist Ali Javan, and William R. Bennett, and Donald Herriott, constructed the first gas laser, using helium and neon that was capable of continuous operation in the infrared (US Patent 3,149,290); later, Javan received the Albert Einstein Award in 1993. Basov and Javan proposed the semiconductor laser diode concept. In 1962, Robert N. Hall demonstrated the first laser diode device, made of gallium arsenide and emitted at 850 nm the near-infrared band of the spectrum. Later, in 1962, Nick Holonyak, Jr. demonstrated the first semiconductor laser with a visible emission. This first semiconductor laser could only be used in pulsed-beam operation, and when cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures (77˚K). In 1970, Zhores Alferov, in the USSR, and Izuo Hayashi and Morton Panish of Bell Telephone Laboratories also independently developed room-temperature, continual-operation diode lasers, using the heterojunction structure.
Since the early period of laser history, laser research has produced a variety of improved and specialized laser types, optimized for different performance goals, including:
- new wavelength bands
- maximum average output power
- maximum peak pulse energy
- maximum peak pulse power
- minimum output pulse duration
- maximum power efficiency
- minimum cost
and this research continues to this day.
Lasing without maintaining the medium excited into a population inversion was discovered in 1992 in sodium gas and again in 1995 in rubidium gas by various international teams. This was accomplished by using an external maser to induce "optical transparency" in the medium by introducing and destructively interfering the ground electron transitions between two paths, so that the likelihood for the ground electrons to absorb any energy has been cancelled.