An interview with Kathleen Maiman

Theodore Maiman with the world's first laser on its 25th anniversaryTwelve years after the 40th anniversary of the laser, we are celebrating its 50th. That’s only possible because the 40th anniversary was a Bell Labs’ invention based on the date of the now famous Physical Review paper describing the theory of “Infrared and optical masers”.

In their own words “Bell Labs threw a party and everybody came” – and most journalists (and I confess that I was one of them) didn’t seem to appreciate that this was the birthday of a dry, scientific paper rather than the creation of a working device a few years later.

However, the “phoney fortieth”* did lead me, eventually, to the account of the very first laser. Ten years later I wrote an editorial column recounting the various anniversaries taking place in the summer of 2008. It was 150 years since the first transatlantic cable, 50 years since the publication of Schawlow and Townes’ famous paper on the theory of the laser, and 20 years since the two ideas – transatlantic cables and lasers – had come together in the form of the first fibre-optic cable to span the ocean.

Thanks to that editorial I met Larry Johnson, founder of US training firm The Light Brigade, who is working on a project to archive the history of optical communications. Larry wanted to set the record straight – he pointed out that Theodore Maiman was the name that everyone should remember in conjunction with the laser because he’d been first to actually build one. Larry put me in touch with Kathleen, wife of the late Dr Maiman, who died in 2007.

Kathleen met Maiman in 1984 on a flight back from the ceremony in which he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Now she speaks in his place at conferences and special events to celebrate the creation of the first laser. In our conversation, it became clear that she misses her late husband with the kind of intensity that time does little to diminish.

The following is an extract from my interview with Kathleen:

PR: Are you a scientist too?
KM: No I’m not. I really more know Ted on the personal level, but I saw him work and how he calculated and recalculated and how he checked. He didn’t just take what was written to be necessarily accurate and correct; he re-measured other peoples work and calculations. I saw him do that. He didn’t take anything at face value. That was one of his traits, to be a doubting Thomas, not to assume anything.

Since Ted died a couple of people have wanted to share with me what they observed about Ted, working with him as a scientist. And they all seem to say the same thing, that Ted was not stopped by what others thought, he wasn’t limited. Even with politics I could see how he could understand both sides of the issue, rather than take the side of one and not to understand or consider the side of another.

PR: What lead Ted to be interested in the laser work in the first place?
KM: Ted got the love of science from his father who was a very creative electrical engineer. In their home as a young boy he was taught science and he excelled. He and his father were always, I have letters between him and his father in college working out certain kinds of problems, and writing back and forth, of course that wasn’t the work that was about the laser, but it was part of his science background.

He had many interests, he had broad interests but there were certain areas where he could go so deep. It astounded me the perspectives, the understanding that he would go to, the level he could go. So in a way it doesn’t surprise me that he could take on a project like the laser that well known scientists had already been discouraged [from pursuing]. Because the physics changes about halfway between microwave and laser, there’s very different physics, and so for those reasons they were giving up. But Ted, there was something so tenacious about him. He didn’t like it when he heard, “Oh that’s not possible”. He’d want to know why that wasn’t possible.

PR: Can you describe some of the events leading up to Ted’s discovery of the laser?
KM: When he was at Hughes that was his first important job. He was hired as a research scientist, and he was interested in moving not just a small percent higher in the electromagnetic spectrum, but actually making that quantum leap, from microwave to laser. But Hughes didn’t believe that it could be done, because at the time the labs of the world were giving up on lasers, even Bell Labs was taking down their apparatus.

Ted had a very hard time at Hughes [pursuading them to let him do the work], but he was convinced that he had a workable way of making a laser, of making coherent light. He knew he could do it. So the Army Corps of Engineers at that time had asked for a maser to be made, the idea was to make it more practical because it was 5000 lb. The agreement made between Hughes and Ted Maiman, was he deliver the maser for the Army Corps of Engineers, and if he was successful, he would be given 9 months and $50,000 to actually make coherent light.

He went to work to make the maser more practical, took it from 5000 lb to 2.5 lb and also improved the bandwidth; it was because of that he was able to do a dedicated project on the laser [...] I think that the real story is of a man who, through his persistence, was able to defy the authoritative voices of the time who were saying the laser was not possible.

Read “And let there be light”, an account of the race to make a laser in Physics World magazine: May 2010 special issue (written by yours truly).

* Maiman’s words.