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"What Is" is a weekly series that explores early media descriptions of an object, genre, or concept. See the archives here.
"Laser" was just a stuffy-sounding acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation before it became a standard option for eye surgeries and Pink Floyd concerts.
Nowadays, you can cop a handheld laser at bodegas and pet stores. But back in the early 1960s, it took complicated machinery and brilliant minds to create a concentrated beam of light that would eventually be capable of burning through solid objects.
First characterized as "a solution looking for a problem,” scientists envisioned the laser use across myriad industries: medical, telecommunications, and, especially, the military.
Sci-fi writers also embraced lasers as weapons in the form of Star Trek's phasers aboard the Starship Enterprise and Star Wars' light sabers on the Millenium Falcon.
In the ultimate example of art imitating life, a laser was at the heart of President Ronald Reagan’s fantastical "Star Wars” missile defense system. The rest is history.
"Dr. Theodore H. Maiman showed for the inspection of newsmen a “laser” (from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), a new solid-state electronic device, smaller than a water tumbler and containing a synthetic ruby as its 'heart,' which he said is being used in the company’s research laboratories to generate the coherent beam.
'Achievement of the laser (sometimes called an optical maser) by Hughes marks the culmination by American industrial research of efforts by teams of scientists in many of the world’s leading laboratories, some private and some publicly supported, some working under defense contracts, and some not,' Dr. Maiman declared."
—Redlands Daily Facts (July 7, 1960)
"[T]he newly invented laser prevents a light beam from fanning out in a wide circle. Its beam of intensified light is certainly strong enough to reach the moon and far, far beyond it.
Its full scientific name is Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Gather up the first letters of these impressive words and you get laser—and if you are in the know you pronounce it to rhyme with amazer. The laser is certainly an amazer."
—The Salt Lake Tribune (August 20, 1962)
"The laser, which gets its name from the acronym of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, produces a beam of coherent light—one that potentially can be modulated, as radio waves are to handle communications."
—New York Times (April 24, 1963)
"Known as lasers—light amplification by means of stimulated emission of radiation—laboratory models already have hinted at the tremendous source of untapped energy by cutting through diamonds and battleship steel in seconds.
Discovered less than three years ago in 1960, lasers are coherent light beams—all of one wave length. Because the beams are of the same wavelengths, they do not dissipate as does incoherent light. Laser beams are many times brighter and hotter than the center of the sun."
—Associated Press via The Morning Record (October 15, 1963)
"It’s a little gadget that puts out an intense beam or pulse of parallel or forced (as desired) light in a coherent, instep beam. Its pulsed frequency should be able to carry enough complex information to furnish a million television programs simultaneously (horrible thought) and can be made as intense and as energy - packed as man’s technology can pack it. And since the beam can be kept practically parallel, there be virtually no loss of energy from source to target unless something opaque intervenes between the two points."
—San Antonio Express/News (June 28, 1964)
"Laser light rays continue as an experimental scientific tool. No one is sure whether this is a wonder device capable of destroying cancer, hitting the moon, or just a dud. Time will tell. Laser stands for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation. It begins as an ordinary light wave that is supercharged or stimulated after passing through a ruby crystal or other substance such as neodymium in glass or uranium in strontium fluoride.
The effect is likened to amplifying the voice by speaking into a megaphone. The ensuing beam is a pure light, thin as a pencil, and many times more intense than the sun."
—The Cumberland News (March 13, 1965)
"At last it has become official. A laser beam will be a vital part of a Gemini 7 space flight early next year. What is a laser?
It is a unique beam of light, so arranged as to present an intense ray concentrated into a tight path, instead of being diffused like ordinary beams. The most dramatic use of the laser, reminiscent of the ray gun of science fiction, is to direct the powerful beam through plates of steel and other formidable barriers.
But the astronauts will not employ the laser for destructive purposes. They will communicate with it."
—The Circleville Herald (August 10, 1965)
"Laser light is no ordinary kind of light. Ordinary light like the kind that comes out of a light bulb or a candle, is actually made up of many lights of varying colors and brightnesses going off and dissipating in all directions.
Laser light, on the other hand, is a continuous high intensity light of a single color, sent bullet-like out of a Laser Gun. Einstein foresaw the possibility of such light in ‘thirties: but it wasn’t until the early sixties that scientists actually made a working Laser."
—The Montreal Gazette (January 24, 1970)
"The name 'laser' is formed from the first letters of certain scientific words. The first two letters in laser stand for light amplification. The 's,' e,' and 'r' stand for 'stimulated emission of radiation.'
So a laser amplifies light. The laser can take a weak beam of light and make it into a strong beam. The laser produces a powerful beam of light. Some lasers produce beams so strong that when they are focused, can burn tiny holes in strips of steel in less than a second. And laser beams can travel long distances through space without spreading out and growing weaker. Because of this they may become an important means of communication in the space age. Many uses have already been found for lasers in medicine, science and industry."
—The Free Lance-Star (November 13, 1974)