Oral History Transcript — Dr. Colin Bowness
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Interview with Dr. Colin Bowness
Colin Bowness; August 9, 1985
ABSTRACT: Bowness was technical director of the Raytheon division that placed the company's lasers and laser systems on the commercial market starting in the early 1960s. Here he discusses the interaction with the Research Division that brought the ruby laser to the attention of his section (Special Microwaves Devices Operation [SMDO]) ; the availability of components and accessories; early miliatry and commercial markets.
In the late 1950 and early 1960s, a new policy was instituted at Raytheon to sell some of the technology we were developing as a means of diversifying, and broadening the base of the company. Our Special Microwave Devices Operations (SMDO) group was formed then. We picked microwave ferrite devices to start with, but kept an eye out for other products. We were originally housed in space borrowed from the Research Division.
In 1960, immediately after Maiman, Raytheon Research Division scientists Clarence Luck and Michael Ciftan set out to reproduce Maiman's results out of scientific interest. A device with linear flashlamps and an elliptical cavity was their first attempt, and within a few months it succeeded.
At that time, I was technical director of SMDO. We had just moved out of the Research building. The then manager of Research Division, Dr. Thomas Johnson, came to me and Howard Scharfman (manager of SMDO) and said, "Look, we designed this product. It has no present application, but it demonstrates the principle of lasers and we think you should market it." Ralph Moschella was our marketing manager. He asked, "What should it cost?" We estimated that with a half a dozen at about $6,000 each, we would break even. Moschella felt there would always be six people who would buy this kind of device, and so we started on a crash program to have one to exhibit in the February 1961 meeting of the IRE at the New York Coliseum.
A decision of this type was very unusual. Customarily, we spent much more time exploring a device's use, the potential market, and so on. In view of the initial excitement, we were hoping that a large market would develop. And in fact, we eventually sold about 40 units, which was a large number considering this laser had no application other than to demonstrate the laser principle.
No particular problems arose in developing the product. Thermodynamics, optics, the Fabry-Perot interferometer and electromagnetism were all involved, but our group was composed mainly of physicists and this science was well-known to us. We went to Harold Edgerton for the flash lamps for the optical pumping' we used lamps from his firm (EG&G) exclusively. This was atypical since we tended to go not to outside consultants, but to other Raytheon divisions, in SMDO.
In the area of components, the availability of good optical quality ruby was our biggest problem. (Both size and quality were subsequently continually improved in the 1960s.) On the other hand, optical polishing of the very hard ruby made use of well-known old techniques. We did some of our own polishing and Airtron did some for us. We may have gotten some of our rubies from Airtron; I do not remember definitely.
I do remember that at the 1961 IRE meeting, Bell Laboratories gave a paper on the laser to standing-room-only. At the end of his talk, the speaker says, "By the way, you can see an operating laser at the Raytheon exhibit." Our exhibit was, therefore, somewhat well-attended, which was ironic because the laser was a last-minute inclusion.
Early on we were giving thought to possible military uses, like radar and beam weapons. On the one hand, most of SMDO's products were government-related; on the other, there was a lot of government interest in how the laser could be used for the military.
For the first few years, there were no adequate power meters. We built lightweight metal cones, blackened on the inside and with a thermocouple at the vertex. From the mass and thermal capacity we could calculate the laser energy, in joules, fed into the cones. Carbon paper was the earliest energy "meter," with razor blades being used later — the number pierced with one shot giving a qualitative measurement.
I believe there were some serious expectations in this early period that the laser market would develop more quickly that it in fact did.
David R. Whitehouse joined us after Raytheon was already involved in lasers. He first was the Research Division, working on the CO2 laser. At one point, Luck moved from Research to SMDO; sometime after, Whitehouse made the same move — taking over from Luck. Whitehouse built CO2 and argon lasers. Meanwhile we were slowly coming to the conclusion that it would be more profitable to sell, not lasers, but products using them. In particular, it became obvious that people wanted material processing capabilities. Moreover, in the HeNe laser area, Spectra-Physics, which had put a lot of resources here, was making a fine product with which we were not competitive. We were competitive with Coherent in CO2 and so Whitehouse's materials processing systems work originated.
The CO2 laser system was a custom market. For example: a project to build a 40 ft. 1 kw laser for the Aberdeen Proving Grounds was carried out under Whitehouse's direction. We were looking for applications, and we did examine the possibility of medical applications. Specifically, a number of doctors approached us wanting to do cancer and other experiments, and we would look at medical applications in conjunction with the experiments they brought in. We did not get into it, although as recently as 1977, we did hire a consultant to advise on using Raytheon lasers in surgery. A more amusing application occurred when some brothers, diamond dealers in New York, developed techniques for "laser-cleaning" diamonds. Diamonds have tiny black faults, piques," and their technique used ruby lasers to enhance the value of the gem. This man came up and ordered a $25,000 system from us, and when our marketing manager explained to him the need for credit reference, he drew out his checkbook and wrote a check for $25,000 on the spot. Subsequently, the brothers, and three or four others bought $500,000 worth of lasers from Raytheon for this purpose.
Raytheon is still the preeminent US firm for high-power solid state lasers, including YAG lasers. We are now beginning to see competition on these from Lumonics in Canada.