What was Theodore H. Maiman, inventor of the world’s first laser, really like as a person? One might expect him to be intelligent, and he was. But friends, family, and professional acquaintances describe a person who could easily be your supporter at work or weekend buddy.
Maiman’s wife of 23 years, Kathleen, recalled meeting him for the first time following his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame. “When we started talking, I felt an immediate comfort as if I had known Ted all my life. It was magical, and as I later learned, Ted conveyed the same natural ease, warmth, and modesty to others,” she said.
Andrew Rawicz, professor of engineering and chair of biomedical engineering at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, agreed. “I’ve known Ted since 2000 and we became friends in 2002. I was so impressed by his intellect. It will always remain with me. But, he made an impression of a very shy man when we first met. He didn’t act like a big rock star. He was very reserved,” Rawicz said.
Maiman had invented the laser 40 years previously in 1960, was awarded many patents (on optical scanning, modulation, masers, lasers, and laser displays), received many honors, and had started several companies by the time Rawicz met him.
“He didn’t need to be the center of attention,” said Kathleen. “He really wasn’t shy. He simply had a calmness, an eloquence about him.”
His accomplishments, combined with his intelligence, could have led to impatience with others. But it didn’t. He was “always tolerant of other people and full of respect for them,” said Rawicz, remembering how he himself ignored the dress code and was wearing sandals when they first met.
“It was always easy to be with Ted as he was a kind, generous, and gentle man,” said Kathleen.
Rawicz added that Maiman enjoyed a good time and humor with those he knew well.
“Ted had a sense of fun and adventure. He had a dry humor and wit. Ted was about warmth and depth of feeling,” said Kathleen.
Michael Barnoski, president and CEO of nanoPrecision Products Inc., agreed. “Maiman was very thoughtful. He was very supportive of everyone on his team,” he said. Maiman supervised Barnoski for four years at TRW Inc., where Maiman set up a new division for communications and digital signal processing. When Barnoski left and started his own company, PCO Inc., Maiman served on its board of directors.
“He was great at assessing how directions should change if that was needed and very good at communicating what he wanted. He was very easy to get along with,” said Barnoski. “I knew other people that worked with him and he was admired very much. He was a very, very honest guy, very straightforward and very focused.”
Although Maiman had a very strong personality, “He did not impose his ideas on others,” said Rawicz. “He didn’t force people to be like him or do what he did. He was actually very charming and very nice. Women found him quite handsome.”
FOCUSED AND CURIOUS
“Once he knew what had to be done,” said Barnoski, “he would just go about and do it. He had a will of iron.”
That’s how he was able to invent the laser, said Barnoski. Maiman was working at Hughes Research Lab in Malibu, Calif., when he began his quest to create the first functioning laser. Hughes gave him nine months to work on developing a laser after he had successfully made a microwave device practical for the Army Corps, said Kathleen.
“He got his interest in reaching farther into the spectrum from working with his father,” she explained, not from an article about masers, as some people believe.
While other researchers were testing gases in attempts to create lasers, Maiman decided to go with solids, in this case, a synthetic ruby crystal grown by Ralph L. Hutcheson. He also created a system that didn’t need cryogenics to cool the laser.
“The powers that be said it couldn’t be done, but he didn’t pay any attention to them. Management at Hughes was on his back,” said Barnoski. “It was a challenge and he stood up to it. He was a very determined man, very curious. He discovered the measurements reported in existing literature weren’t right. He said the others were wrong.”
“Ted had that extra drop of courage to listen to himself when everyone else told him he was wrong,” said Kathleen.
Maiman successfully proved his calculations were right with his ruby laser. But when Maiman tried to announce his success with an article submitted to Physical Review Letters, the journal rejected it. A shorter version was subsequently accepted and published in Nature, published in the United Kingdom, in August 1960.
A BORN TINKERER
Maiman was driven by his intellectual curiosity, said Barnoski. “It motivated him to find out why things were the way they were and how you could make things better. He was a very practical guy when it came to engineering. He just loved to tinker his whole life. Even when he retired, he had a lab in his apartment,” said Barnoski.
Rawicz admired Maiman’s “incredible ability to simplify. The ruby laser he invented was so incredibly simple, and that is why it worked from the first minute.” Rawicz recalled being amazed that the ruby laser he used at the Welding Research Institute in Poland was so similar to Maiman’s ruby laser invention 20 years earlier. The lack of change, noted Rawicz, was because the “first one was so good, so elegant” in its simplicity.
“He always enjoyed working,” added Rawicz. Even in his 70s, Maiman continued to do research. “When we met, he was still working on some projects that had nothing to do with optics. He built quite a number of vertical-start airplane models (similar to helicopters but much faster). To him it was like working with toys. He enjoyed it,” said Rawicz.
Both Barnoski and Rawicz noted how devoted Maiman was to his wife. “He was a very good husband. They were very close,” said Barnoski. The greatest sorrow in his life, though, was the loss of his daughter as a young adult from a rare form of cancer. “That was very difficult,” said Barnoski.
It may be one reason he treasured his friends. “He enjoyed being with good friends he knew he could trust,” said Rawicz. “We discussed things and joked a lot. He enjoyed partying.” Rawicz fondly recalls spending New Year’s Eve’s together, shooting off firecrackers at midnight.
“He enjoyed about everything he did,” added Barnoski. “I never saw him where he didn’t give his all and he wasn’t completely interested in what he was doing. He just engaged completely in what he was doing.”
Maiman gladly helped others with intellectual or research challenges. Said Rawicz, “He gave me a few pointers on my research when he found a hole in my approach, but he always did it in a very tactful way.” Maiman frequently attended the SFU retreats and helped in designing the optical engineering and biophotonics courses there.
AFTER THE LASER
Some time after Maiman invented the laser at Hughes, he left and joined Quantatron to head its laser activities. Within two years of Maiman’s development of the laser, he formed his own company, Korad, buying out Quantatron and continuing his research, development, and manufacture of lasers and other products. Union Carbide eventually bought out the Korad stock. In 1968, Maiman left and created Maiman Associates.
Later, Maiman was director of Control Laser Corp. and served on the advisory board of Industrial Research Magazine. He also founded Laser Video Corp., specializing in developing laser-based video display systems. He served as vice president of advanced technology at TRW, subsequently part of Northrop Grumman, from 1976 to 1983, as well.
Maiman additionally served as adjunct professor in the school of engineering at Simon Fraser University. About the time Maiman and Rawicz met, Maiman had just published his book, The Laser Odyssey, about his invention of the laser.
Maiman was awarded the Japan Prize in 1987. Barnoski nominated Maiman for the award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Maiman was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize. “He should have gotten the Nobel Prize,” said Barnoski.
Additionally, Maiman was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering. He received the Oliver E. Buckley Prize in 1966 and the Wolf Prize in Physics for 1983/84. He was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1983. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the Society of Photo- Optical Instrumentation Engineers, and the Optical Society of America as well.
Maiman died on May 5, 2007, two months prior to his 80th birthday, from systemic mastocytosis in Vancouver, Canada. His invention of the laser will be recognized at a 50th anniversary celebration on May 15 and 16, 2010, at Simon Frazer University’s Morris Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver. Invited guests and speakers include Nobel Prize winners who utilized lasers in their projects. For details, contact Rawicz at [email protected].