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Biographical entry Maiman, Theodore Harold (1927 - 2007)

Hon FRCS 1994; BS Colorado 1949; MS Stanford 1951; PhD Stanford 1955.

11 July 1927
Los Angeles, California, USA
5 May 2007
Vancouver, Canada


In 1960 Theodore Maiman developed the first laser while working at the Hughes Research Laboratories in California. Born in Los Angeles on 11 July 1927, his father, Abraham Maiman, was an electrical engineer. Ted Maiman was raised in Denver, Colorado, and served in the US Navy before studying physics at the University of Colorado, paying his way by repairing electrical appliances. He went on to Stanford under Willis Lamb, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1955 for his work on the fine structure of the hydrogen spectrum.

After gaining his PhD, Maiman went to work at the Hughes Research Laboratories in California, owned by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. At Columbia University Charles H Townes was applying Einstein’s concept of stimulated emission, a logical development of his theory of relativity. Although Townes had shown in theory that the principle could be applied to visible light, he used microwaves in his prototype two-ton ‘maser’. Maiman was assigned to make a smaller version. His system, the first to work for visible light, used the emission from chromium atoms in a rod of synthetic ruby that had been grown by Ralph L Hutcheson. Each end of the rod was made optically flat and coated with silver. At first a photographic flash was used as the source of light. Maiman’s first instrument weighed two kilograms. Slowly, the power of the system was increased, until on 16 May 1960 the red pulses suddenly grew brighter as the threshold was crossed and the first laser beam was produced. Publication was at first turned down, but Howard Hughes held a press conference, where the new system was misleadingly reported as a ‘death ray’.

Maiman left Hughes to start his own company, which he sold after a few years to become a consultant for the aerospace firm TRW, which built space satellites and missiles. He was twice nominated for a Nobel prize, but won many other awards, including the Ballantine medal of the Franklin Institute (1962), the Wood prize of the American Optical Society (1976), the Wolf prize (1984), the Japan prize (1987) and an honorary fellowship of our College.

He died of systemic mastocytosis on 5 May 2007 in Vancouver. He leaves his second wife, Kathleen Heath, and a stepdaughter, Cynthia Sanford.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Independent 9 May 2007; The Daily Telegraph 11 May 2007; The New York Times 11 May 2007; International Herald Tribune 13 May 2007; The Times 15 May 2007].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England