Because he was not part of the elite scientific establishment, the inventor of the LASER struggled his entire life to receive the credit he deserved. Curious, adventuresome and somewhat creative as a child, Theodore Maiman wasn’t afraid to look at things a little differently from the crowd.
Maiman started his experiments early. At three and a half years old, young Theodore was convinced that the refrigerator light was not turning off when his mother closed the door. Like most of us, she was skeptical; but before she could close the door Theodore had climbed inside to inspect.
Agreeing to let him inspect, she helped him complete his first scientific experiment. And, wouldn’t you know, he was right!
A year later, Theodore’s curiosity was getting him into trouble. When the four year old climbed into the laundry man’s delivery truck, he soon found out what happens when you bump the gear stick backwards. The laundry man was upset to find his truck rammed up against the curb on the other side of the road!
Theodore took after his father. An engineer who pioneered a breakthrough radio device, Abe Maiman pressed forward when his boss said the invention would never work. From him, Theodore learned to keep trying in spite of what others said.
One of Theodore’s professors in college told him, “Never give up until you have checked every possible alternative. Be creative.” He carried this wisdom with him through life. Theodore Maiman didn’t believe in luck; he believed in being prepared.
Before Maiman, there was no such thing as a LASER. That means there were no fiber optics, no LASER rangefinders, no LASER surgeries, no DVDs, no barcode readers, and no LASER printing.
Many scientists spent their careers trying to create what would be known as a LASER, but they didn’t do the practical work of experimentation. Famous scientists Schawlow and Townes imagined they had invented a LASER when they scribbled down some brilliant formulas on paper. Believing they knew the answer, they told Maiman that his methods would never work.
The day the Maiman directed a focused, red light through a small mirrored apparatus became the most exciting day of his life. Sadly, as with most inventors, the battle was only beginning for Theodore Maiman.
Schawlow and Townes would try to take credit for his invention, and the other members of the scientific establishment were eager to keep the credit from an outsider. Unfortunately for them, the two scientists were unable to produce a working model based on their theory.
Even the news media rarely gave Maiman the credit he deserved, and when they did it was as the inventor of the “death ray.” Just looking for a story to stir up the public, newspapers loved to put the LASER in a bad light.
Today few people know the name of Theodore Maiman, but his invention is changing the world. How many ways do you use LASERs every day? Hint: Many of you are getting the internet through fiber optic cables, a LASER application. Thank you, Theodore Maiman.