FEATURE
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40 years of Electro Optics

To help celebrate our 40 years of existence, some of the industry's most respected names have kindly penned their thoughts and memories of their lives in photonics

Steven M. Jarrett, Coherent co-founder

Coherent was initially funded in 1966 through a $15,000 per month contract from Dupont, the chemical company. Even then, that wasn’t very much money. At that time, Dupont believed that holograms could become the next high-density optical image storage media, and lasers producing a full spectrum of wavelengths would be necessary for reading and writing images. One of the purposes of our contract was to develop a ‘white light’ krypton ion laser. SpectraPhysics, the leading laser company at that time, sold an ion laser product based upon an RF electrical discharge in a fused quartz plasma tube. Initially, we intended to follow their technical lead. We changed our mind for technical reasons and built a segmented graphite plasma tube. It was radiation-cooled, could handle higher power levels and, just as important, it offered a route to longer lifetime.

After three years of intense development, Coherent offered not only the ‘white light’ laser but also a 2W argon ion laser for $10,000. In addition to being an instantly accepted product on its own, this laser was used in the first ion laser based retinal photocoagulator offered by Coherent for treatment of eye disease. The ion laser and photocoagulator made Coherent a profitable company, and we took the company public in 1970.

Obviously, we’ve grown tremendously since then, and the industry has changed, diversified and matured. But I think that the original spirit of the founders still guides the company today. In particular, Coherent remains focused on applying technology to deliver a better performing product that offers superior reliability and value to our customers.

Peter Baker, Laser Institute of America

My first experience with lasers was in 1967, a little more than 40 years ago. I was a new immigrant from England. My first employer was a defence contractor. While they were checking me out for security clearance I was called into the boss’s office and put on his pet project, using lasers to see the enemy in the dark (this was during the Vietnam War).

The idea was to take the 10μm radiation, which we humans emit, mix it with a ruby laser in a nonlinear birefringent crystal, and view the sum frequency, which is visible radiation. To my amazement I made it work in the lab, although I doubt if it could ever have been made efficient enough to be useful in the (paddy) field.

My next adventure was in a classic business start-up situation: two MIT graduates and me in a very small room. They needed a YAG laser and it was my job to build one. YAG lasers had only been invented three years before and all of the components were unreliable in those days. The YAG rods bleached out, the mirrors were easily damaged, and the acousto-optic Q switches unbonded themselves with maddening frequency.

Accordingly, my ‘Model 30’ 10W YAG laser needed plenty of spare parts to support it in the field. The laser went into a pioneering laser resistor trimming system, which I (with my marketing VP hat on) sold into such European companies as Bosch, Blaupunkt and others. The early customers were pretty brave in hindsight as those first systems required that the customer provide engineers as the first line of maintenance support as well as access to plenty of spare parts.

The big difference with today’s lasers is that they are amazingly reliable; they run for thousands – tens of thousands – of hours without failure. Some can be diagnosed over the internet for preventative maintenance.

These things were just a dream 40 years ago. Other improvements are in beam quality (especially with the fibre laser) and wallplug efficiency (especially in direct diode applications). So today’s lasers have become another tool, an elegant, versatile and very reliable one at that. When they are incorporated into computer-controlled systems they get the job done in a cost-effective manner, in a huge variety of fields.

This is why we are now at a very exciting time. Laser applications are poised for explosive increase. They are just at the ankle of a steep growth curve and this pioneer from the dark ages is looking forward to the ride!

Dr Eugene G. Arthurs, CEO, SPIE

Late-1960s Belfast was home to what was probably the most active laser group in Europe at the time. Queen’s University professor Dan Bradley and his research group had developed a pulsed-dye laser with sufficient commercial value to inspire formation of a start-up company – a rare step for a university professor in those days – called Electrophotonics.

As a PhD candidate under Professor Bradley, I attended an international meeting he organised in Belfast, with attendees including Nobel laureates Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov. It was rare enough to see a Russian in Belfast in those Cold War days. To meet a group of Russian scientists there was unprecedented.

Photos of Professor Bradley’s group from that era document a loyal adherence to a jacket-and-tie dress code and a complete absence of women in the lab.

In the early 1970s I made what was then a oneway transition from academia to industry, taking a position with Barr and Stroud in Glasgow. While a few women were employed by the company at the staff level, there were no women ‘senior staff’. At that time, as in some other large UK companies, dining rooms were segregated by gender as well as by employee grade. It wasn’t till after 1975 that a woman, a high-ranking visitor, had lunch in the board dining room.

All black and white ... the early days in Belfast are captured in this photo.

But the company was beginning to move in new forward-thinking technical directions under the leadership of David Ritchie. A defence contractor since 1888, Barr and Stroud had begun to explore dual use in new markets, adapting military technology to medical applications such as tattoo removal and laser endoscopic therapy using argon ion lasers developed by Barr and Stroud and Nd:YAG lasers from Quantronix.

My continuing education came in large part from SPIE, which I joined as a postdoc. SPIE’s accelerated expansion of scope from photo-optical instrumentation further into optics and photonics reflected the new focus on optical technology, sparked in part by the invention of the laser in 1960, the space race, and emerging computer technologies. In 1968, Intel was launched and began making microchips using a metallic oxide semiconductor process, and researchers at Bell Labs invented the charge-coupled device. By 1970 SPIE had organised its first event outside the USA, with a conference held in Japan.

David Whiffen, founder of Electro Optics magazine

Well, well, well. I can hardly believe it is 40 years since I created the journal Electro Optics. It reminds me of my old school song – 40 Years On When Afar And Asunder. I first published it in 1968 because, in 1967, I was publishing a journal titled Laboratory Electronic Equipment and a Dr Paul Cook, owner of the company Scientifica & Cook Electronics, took a four-page insert in the journal. In this he advertised DC gas lasers as his main products. He received such a favourable response that he suggested to me that ‘you should start a laser magazine’. I thought that sounded like a good idea so I did!

Little did I know what I had let myself in for. The UK laser industry hardly existed and, at that time, lasers used to be described as a solution looking for a problem. I used to joke later that Electro Optics was a journal looking for a market! To illustrate this, the total number of companies that were producing or selling lasers and associated equipment at that time in the UK was 104! The journal was actually originally titled Laser Review, but in March 1971 I changed it to Electro Optics, because I could see that the original title was far too limiting.

This coincided with the holding of the first Electro Optics Exhibition in Brighton and, together they helped to focus attention on the growing electro optics market. However it was not until the second half of 1985 that the journal started to increase in size and circulation. I had realised very early on that it should circulate to the whole of Europe and it was, indeed, the first journal covering the subject of electro optics to have a pan-european circulation.

Looking back to the 1980s, at that time I believed that the electro optics industry was running along a path similar to the electronics industry, albeit much smaller, and I never thought it would rival it in size. Although I do not know the current sizes of both markets, it is plain that electro optics now equals electronics in some areas and supersedes it in others, particularly in technical aspects. I believed some years ago that the journal I had created would last, in one form or another, for say 100 years, rather in the same way that the leading engineering journals that were first published in the 1850s were still around well beyond the 1950s. It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to know that Electro Optics has served its chosen industry for 40 years and looks set to continue for well over another 40 years! I wish it continuing success in future.

Robert Edmund, Edmund Optics

I joined the family business in 1970. My father started Edmund in the early 1940s and, at the time, much of the business was in selling war surplus optics. We’d salvage instruments – take them apart, return the parts that were needed and resell what was left. In the early 1950s, we ended up supplying the US Government again because of the Korean War. There was a dip in the market after that conflict, and Edmund began to move away from pure optics – in fact it became Edmund Scientific.

Before I joined the company, I went to business school, where I had to write a thesis using an existing business as a case study. Naturally I chose my father’s company and, during the exercise, I concluded that the best direction for the business at that point was to return to pure optics. I gave this paper to my father when I joined. He looked at it, nodded acknowledgement, and then effectively filed it at the back of a drawer without paying it too much attention.

Some years later, when he retired and I took over, I made good on my paper’s conclusions and separated out the optics division.

Photonics was a much smaller industry back in the early 70s. There were far fewer people, which made for more of a community than today, and it was more like a collection of artists and craftsmen than engineers and businessmen. There were lots of heated debates among competitors about how good each other’s optics were. Also, the various optics shows and conventions were so small that one could see everyone one needed to in a matter of hours.

Now, it takes a full three days to get round Photonics West, and even then you can’t see everyone. The biggest change in the intervening period has been the demand for non-consumer optics throughout industrial and medical sectors. Also, the industry has grown up and become more professional. Many optics companies have invested in professional management structures and proper marketing campaigns and so on.’

John Ekstrand, Newport Spectra-Physics

John Ekstrand, who started at Spectra-Physics for a summer hire in 1964 as a junior electronics technician, believes that his fondest memories are from the days he spent developing UPC laser scanners for supermarkets.

According to Ekstrand: ‘In the early summer of 1973, the announcement of adoption of the Universal Product Code bar code label format was made at the Super Market Institute show in Dallas.

As early as June of that same year, we had identified an opportunity for Spectra-Physics, and had a contract to develop a scanner for NCR. ‘We knew it was possible to read the bar codes because it had been proven during the code selection process, but the question was whether or not we could read the labels well enough under real world store conditions. Some of the challenges we faced included strict performance standards, sunlight, air conditioning vapour, lighting modulation, poorly printed labels, poor contrast labels, scan pattern coverage, product speed and so on. My role in the project was to develop the analogue electronics, including detection PMT and PMT power supply, edge detection signal processing circuits, item gates, laser power supply, PON (power on reset) circuit, laser safety, electrical safety and EMC, and label and paper signal return characterisation.

‘By December 1973, we had delivered the first working scanner to NCR. As it turned out, the circuits I developed worked as well or better than any one else’s. NCR then installed our scanners in the first trial store in April 1974, and the rest is history. Spectra-Physics went on to assemble about 35 more of those models in the spring of 1974 and developed four more generations of the product well into the 1990s. Today, even though the retail division is no longer a part of Spectra-Physics, the group lives on as a part of PSC.’

When asked about whether or not any of the earliest models are still in service, Ekstrand responded, ‘Only a few of the first models still exist. One is in the Smithsonian, and another in my garage.’

Photonics timeline

1917 Albert Einstein proposes stimulated emission, the principle behind laser technology.

1953 Charles Hard Townes produces the microwave amplifier – a precursor to the laser.

1957 Gordon Gould coins the word laser (from light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and lays down some of the groundwork for a workable system.

1958 Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow at the Bell Laboratories file a patent application for the first workable laser.

1960 Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories builds the world’s first laser from a ruby rod.

1960 The first gas laser is built by Ali Javan, William R Bennett and Donald Herriot.

1960 The first laser diode, made from gallium arsenide, is demonstrated by Robert N Hall. It must be cooled to 77K to operate.

1968 Electro Optics first published as Laser Review

1970 The first laser diode to operate at room temperature is built.

1971 Laser Review changes its name to Electro Optics Mid 80s Gérard Mourou proposes chirped pulse amplification – a technique that paved the way for ultrafast lasers.

2003 Electro Optics becomes part of Europa Science Ltd 2008 Electro Optics celebrates 40 years of publishing.