Optics Mag is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Read more.

When Were Lasers Invented? History of the Laser

Last Updated on

blue, green and red laser beams

There is probably a laser not too far from you, wherever you are right now. You can find them all over the place, and even if there is not one in your home, all you need to do is head to your closest store to find one at the register.

The first laser came about in 1958, but what were scientists trying to figure out in the first place? We answer all these questions and more about this groundbreaking device here.

scope crosshairs divider 2

When Were Lasers Invented?

Today, it seems like lasers have been a part of our lives forever. But the first laser didn’t come about until 1958, and at the time, it wasn’t clear what the massive implications this groundbreaking device would have.

The original principle for lasers came from Albert Einstein in 1917. He laid out the theoretical roots for the first laser in his theory of stimulated emission.

But while Einstein developed the theory, he didn’t build the first laser, and he certainly didn’t fully comprehend its far-reaching potential.

hand holding green laser pointer
Image Credit: Cucu Andrei Adrian, Shutterstock

scope crosshairs divider 1

Who Invented the First Laser?

While Einstein was the first person to describe the theory behind the laser, the accolade of developing and patenting a functioning laser belongs to both Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow.

But while those two get the credit for the first laser because they were the lead authors on the paper outlining it, they had help from many other scientists and aides.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the patents themselves ended up in litigation for decades. Eventually, the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals ruled against Townes and Schawlow so others could patent different ideas and make different types of lasers.scope crosshairs divider 1

What Did Scientists Use the First Laser For?

While the first laser made its debut in 1958, it didn’t have many practical uses. Townes started on lasers because he saw a use for them in spectroscopy, but even this was of limited use for the scientific community.

It wasn’t until later that lasers became widely used in many everyday applications. Examples of current applications for the laser include CD players, printers, barcode scanners, laser surgery, and much more.

hand holding bar code scanner and scanning code on cardboard box
Image Credit: Bacho, Shutterstock

scope crosshairs divider 1

Naming the Laser

While “laser” is now a ubiquitous term for a well-known event and device, did you know that it started as an acronym?

Laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It’s how a laser works and it’s right in the name!

scope crosshairs divider 1

What Did Scientists Use Before the First Laser?

The laser came about in 1958, but before that, a similar technology called the “maser” existed. It worked in much the same way as a laser, but it used ammonia and microwave radiation instead of light amplification.

Townes and Schawlow invented the maser too, a few years earlier in 1954.

scope crosshairs divider 2


While scientists and the world didn’t understand the full applications of the laser when Townes and Schawlow first developed it, the laser has become one of the most integral parts of our society today.

For his work, Townes received a Nobel Prize in 1964, and in 1981, Schawlow received his own Nobel Prize. It’s safe to say that the scientific community appreciates their contributions to science!

You might be interested: What Is A Diode Laser? The Interesting Answer!

Featured Image Credit: nepool, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.