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On Being the First: Lasers, James Clerk Maxwell, and Other Musings!

 Ronald D. Schaeffer






By Ronald D. Schaeffer, PhD
PhotoMachining Inc.

The Industrial Laser Community is one of the most active and fun in all of SME and it is an honor to be asked to write the first blog for the new Laser Channel at  This being the ‘first’, I thought I would discuss some early history in the search for the understanding of light.

Most people have heard of Newton and Einstein, but how many know about James Clerk Maxwell?  In the late 1800’s he was, for reasons of almost pure intellectual curiosity, trying toUV laser machining system slices a part. understand some early observations about light and electricity.  It was known that if you ran electrical current through a wire it would create a magnetic field.  It was also known that if you had a strong magnetic field, you could induce a current in the wire--which fittingly enough is called induction.  Clearly there had to be some relationship.  At about the same time, investigators studying light measured the speed at 2.99 x 108 m/sec.  Now, it was possible to measure the propagation of electric and magnetic fields and when this was done--amazingly the fields propagate at exactly the speed of light!  This led to the great field unification equations, formulated by Maxwell, which essentially say that light, electricity and magnetism are all one and the same thing and they all travel at the ‘speed of light’.  Unlike Einstein and Newton’s more famous equations that are pretty recognizable (after all, who hasn't seen E = mc2?), these equations involve vector calculus and things known as ‘dot products’ and ‘cross products’--mathematics familiar to most math or science graduate students, but not to the average person. 

The results of Maxwell’s insight led to work on radar which led to the MASER (Microwave Amplified Stimulated Emission of Radiation) which led directly to the LASER.  It also laid the foundation for relativity and quantum physics.  Probably more so than even Newton and Einstein, Maxwell’s work directly affects our lives and the way in which we live.  It has led to things like lasers, harnessed electricity, semiconductors and basically our whole way of living as 21st Century Humans.  As if this were not enough, in the short 48 years that he lived, he also made major contributions to steam engine technology, the kinetic theory of gases, bridge design, optics and the first color photography. 

I therefore propose that Maxwell can be considered the ‘first’ to really understand light and to unlock the huge potential contained in the photon--even though Maxwell knew nothing about the ‘particle character’ of light (this was to come later from Plank and Einstein) and thought that since light was a wave it needed a corporeal ether to propagate, like a wave in water.  He had no clue that his work would lead to many of the things noted above; his reward was a job well done and intellectual curiosity satisfied.

Laser plumes generated by a laser pulse.

The best place to showcase the cool new optics-related technologies are trade shows, and one of the most important to our Industrial Laser Community is coming up during the week of February 3 in San Francisco, CA.  SPIE Photonics West is the premier laser applications event in the US and draws well over 20,000 visitors.  Lasers can be found from the milliwatt power level up to tens of kilowatts along with a host of associated optics, accessories and applications.  There are also tutorials and courses--I personally give a course on the Fundamentals of Laser Micromachining on Tuesday February 4th from 1:30--5:30, so if you have an interest in micromachining (or you are in need of a good nap!), plan to attend!  The show is also a good place to satisfy intellectual curiosity.  Too many times, many of us who attend trade shows have a full agenda of meetings and the dreaded ‘booth duty’ and never get to walk around just to see what is new and cool.  The problem becomes more noticeable the more trade shows one attends, so for those of us regulars it is important to remember to retain at least some of the fascination of your first trade show and don’t focus exclusively on the agenda.

More interesting thoughts will be forthcoming from our colleagues.  I look forward to meeting everyone at future events, especially those hosted by SME!


About the Author

Ronald D. Schaeffer is Chief Executive Officer of PhotoMachining, Inc.  He has been involved in laser manufacture and materials processing for over 25 years, working in and starting small companies.  He has over 150 publications and has written monthly web and print columns (currently writing a column for MicroManufacturing Magazine).  He is on the Editorial Advisory Board and is a frequent Blogger for Industrial Laser Solutions magazine.  He is also a past member of the Board of Directors of the Laser Institute of America and is affiliated with the New England Board of Higher Education.  Finally, he is the author of the text book entitled, “Fundamentals of Laser Micromachining”.  He has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Lehigh University and did graduate work at the University of Paris.  He is a US Army veteran of the 172nd Mountain Brigade and the 101st Airborne division.  In his spare time he farms, collects antique pocket watches, plays guitar and rides motorcycle.

Published Date : 1/24/2014

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