Founders of the Early Laser
Robert H. Dicke
In 1956, Dicke filed a patent titled "Molecular Amplification Generation Systems and Methods" with claims of how to build an infrared laser and the use of an open resonator (awarded Sept. 9, 1958). Unfortunately, this patent had no effect on the development of the laser due to lack of publicity.
In 1957, Gould recorded the use of an optical or Fabry-Perot cavity (a device that uses mirrors to trap and isolate a single wavelength of light) in his lab notebook. Optical cavities are instrumental in making laser light. In addition, Gould was the first to publicly use the term laser, "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission." in 1959. Gould filed a laser patent in April 1959, but it was not awarded until 1977.
Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow
Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow are credited with developing the first maser, the precursor to the laser, in 1953. They quickly realized that the wavelengths of infrared and visible light would be more powerful than the microwaves of the maser. In 1957, they found the solution to making an optical cavity by aligning two highly reflecting mirrors parallel to each other and placing the amplifying medium in-between.
While no actual laser had been made, they applied for a patent on July 30, 1958, with the relevant physics described in a paper titled "Infrared and Optical Masers" sent to the Physical Review in August 1958. Townes and Schawlow were awarded an optical maser patent in 1960. In 1964, Charles Townes and Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolay Basov shared a Nobel Prize for their contributions to the development of lasers. Arthur Schawlow later won a Nobel Prize in 1981, which was shared with Bloembergen and Siegbahn.
Alexsandr M. Prokhorov and Nikolay Basov
Alexsandr M. Prokhorov and Nikolay Basov had been developing a maser in Russia at the same time as Townes and Schawlow. They described their concept in the October 1954 issue of the Russian journal JETP (Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics). In June of 1958, Prokhorov published a brief proposal for a maser operating in the optical spectrum, with the light reflected back and forth between a pair of mirrors. They shared a Nobel Prize for their contributions to the development of lasers in 1964, along with Charles Townes.
Maiman built the first working laser at Hughes Research Labs in 1960. He was the first to correctly realize that rapid pulses of light could excite atoms in a ruby by optical pumping with commercial flash lamps. This laser was so easy to build that within weeks several other groups duplicated the achievement.