Oral History Transcript — Dr. A. Stevens Halsted
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Interview with Dr. A. Stevens Halsted
A. Stevens Halsted; December 1, 1987
ABSTRACT: From 1969-1976, Halsted headed Hughes Aircraft Company’s commercial gas laser unit within the firm’s industrial electronics group. In this conversation Halsted describes some of the customers Hughes had for argon-ion and helium neon lasers. He talks about the composition of the work force, and about the kinds of development work that was required to commercialize the tubes. He also touches on the degree to which commercial products were “spin-offs” from military technology, and the slow rate at which the commercial laser market developed.
Device research all went on in Malibu (at the Hughes Research Laboratories) in the 1960s. When a clear-cut application was there, the development work would be taken down to an R&D division. We had an industrial electronics group making high-technology products. Some were sold as standard components to aerospace or defense contractors, and others on the commercial market. This group was accustomed to taking products developed for military applications and turning them into standard items or commercial products. The microwave tube division within the industrial electronics group made glass tubes and precision, evacuated devices.
I believe that this group took the initiative and came to Malibu and suggested developing lasers. The group perceived that there was business to be done here. To make the transition from a technical capability to a product, Hughes Aircraft Company would transfer a key person to the production facility. So I was asked to head up a department within the microwave tube division that then had 15-20 people, in order to develop a laser product line.
This was a group that later was built into 80-90 people, with a manufacturing group and 5-6 marketing people. I went there in 1969. When I arrived, I found that some of the people had laser backgrounds. Among those with a master’s degree, in particular, there was one MIT person who had some background. Others were versed in vacuum tube technique. Learning went on through a number of channels. Some people were sent to work in Malibu for a few months on alignment and optical subjects like that, or people would visit the Research Laboratories to ask questions. We also had within the Microwave Tube Division a $1,000,000 contract from the Air Force, to work on manufacturing technology for argon ion lasers for military applications. The military put this kind of money into the process of carrying research into hardware.
Our argon ion product line embraced a standard laser for laboratory use and several commercial lasers. We sold a pulsed argon ion laser used for photocomposition processes to original equipment manufacturers that used them in rotating film discs for laser printers. These were New York City companies, and they used the lasers for cheaply printed products like telephone books. We sold 30-40 units a year to this market.
We sold pulsed argon lasers also to biological research scientists. They would stain cells and examine the fluorescence or they would use the laser to rupture bonds within large molecules. Michael Berns was one of our customers and he wrote a number of papers using our lasers. There was also a California Institute of Technology scientist among them who ultimately won a Nobel Prize. Perhaps a total of 10 per year were sold for this, together with new tubes for the system. Another large argon market was in photo coagulators. Coherent first came out with this product, after Francis L ’Esperance and Eugene Gordon proved it out. In this area we worked with a company called OEC, which bought 80-90 argon lasers a year from us. The photo coagulator laser had to be packaged differently from the two models of pulsed argon ion lasers that we sold for printing and biology. We also sold some lasers for resistor trimming. What we wanted at this time was a small number of customers with large orders. What we got was people coming in and buying one or two units.
Our labor force was composed of persons with varying levels of skill. The people who put together the tubes were hourly workers trained on vacuum devices. Their work comprised processing lasers, cleaning glass, making seals, and glass blowing. The people who cleaned glass and did the chemical washing were high school graduates. It was better-than-minimum wage work. We had some minority employees there and elsewhere, mainly Hispanic. They worked at stations that had previously been used for vacuum tubes. Then there were electric technicians. Above them, in experience, and the most experienced of our production line people, were the microwave tube people. They were people in their 30s and 40s, who did the top level assembling. Our scientific staff worked continually on the argon laser.
Our focus was on achieving smaller, more reliable devices. After 10 years, this laser still had only 500-1,000 hours of life. Most of the input power still went into heat that eroded the components. So we took steps like changing the geometry to avoid erosion, or improving the thermal properties. One problem was that the cooling water would interact with the metal joints. We needed to develop a seal to protect them. More power would require more current density, and thus more cooling. So there was a lot of engineering to do.
There were different ways to solve these problems and different companies would come up with different products. We had the goal of making small, high performance lasers that, for example, could be placed in airplanes. Spectra-Physics, in contrast, which aimed at the laboratory market, put out large ones, some 6-7 feet long. Sometimes you’d see a laser on the markets which embodied ideas you could use, but clearly not everyone’s solutions interested us. We had no trouble obtaining components by 1970, with prompt delivery.
By that time, you could buy windows, mirrors, and optical holding devices. The early, klugy horseshoe windows were gone. People had found ways to seal small windows with epoxies so that they would not be distorted. Only when we went to high powers or new lines were these old challenges renewed. We derived useful knowledge for commercial operations from some of the Department of Defense contracts we had. A contract I had had at Malibu for bore materials was useful at the Microwave Tube Division. Some Air Force work on the basic mechanisms behind scaling laws was, again, very useful later in our development work.
The biggest product line was HeNe lasers; we sold 8 to 9 thousand of them a year as against 100 argon lasers. NASA, which was used to buying space components from the Microwave Division, had a contract for HeNes for space use even as we started up. We developed, jointly with Malibu, a coaxial tube that is now standard for HeNe lasers. Next we signed a contract with Keuffel and Esser, who wanted to develop a line of survey instruments. We made a coaxial laser with a stable beam and stable directionality. Building contractors bought HeNes for leveling. We sold 80-100 a month to original equipment manufacturers for this application. This was a large market from 1971 onward. The basic work on this laser also was done at Malibu. The Research laboratories was well positioned to develop one or 2 prototypes. It had, however, neither the production lines to make commercial lasers nor the organizational structure to make systems for the military. Military systems have to be tested. They have to be provided with documentation on how to put the system together, complete with drawings.
Malibu people wanted to do research, not drawings. Not only is the paper the military demands quite different from the commercial sector, but so are its requirements for an assurance of quality. The question of whether our commercial work can be said to have ever “taken off” is a matter of scale. In 1975, for example, we did $2-3 million of business. On the overall scale of Hughes Aircraft Company, that was not large, even though we were probably the 5th largest laser manufacturer at the time. [In answer to a question on the role of laser trade organizations.] The Electronic Industries Association had subgroups in different areas and we supported the laser subgroup. I went to some of the meetings and got involved in some of the discussions on safety. Government attempts to set safety standards brought us together and we testified at hearings. The LIA was made up of relatively smaller companies, and was a competitor of EIA. We did not become involved in it.
As to the laser journals, Laser Focus was something most people read as a throwaway. Wed advertise there, as well as in Photonics and Physics Today. By the mid-1970s, we had advertisements out every month. In 1976, the product line was moved the Electric Products Division in Carlsbad, and I myself transferred to the military systems area to enable me to remain in the Los Angeles region. Looking back on my years in commercial lasers, it is clear that the market for lasers in large quantities grew more slowly than we had anticipated because the products were relatively expensive, relatively large, and relatively short-lived, especially the Helium-Cadmium and argon ion lasers.
We were waiting for a mass market, the videodisc market for example, to take off, but none did. Philips introduced helium-neon videodisc but it never was successful. IBM and Xerox were experimenting with laser printing, but they waited for greater reliability of lasers. Bell Laboratories work on optical communications didn’t take off. Because the markets were relatively small, small companies in specialized areas could split off, even though they did not have the appreciable capital required for large volume production. Originally, we had hoped for markets on the scale of the semiconductor market. But maturation was slow, despite the fact that quite a few resources were put in. Rangefinders received a lot of money, for example, but it took 10-15 years before a good product eventuated. It took years to get a reliable carbon-dioxide unit, for something like cutting suits. Genesco came to us at the laboratories and we developed the application of cutting leather for them. Development of the Genesco System required developing the optics, the numerical control tables, and the conveyor belts. We had to explore issues such as how quickly the laser cut, how did it leave the edges, did the material get gooey, what was the steering system for the beam, how could the patterns he stored? We evolved a system that cost 1.5 million dollars. Genesco invested a lot in it, and took in on as an all new capability. Other companies then came along and learned its usefulness by seeing it at Genesco. We sold 12-15 of these systems. It was frustrating, however. Every 6 months some improvement would come along that could make the system better.
Meanwhile out in the factories their devices were breaking down every four months. Our customers expected it to be working the next day. They didn’t want to pay engineers to keep it running. On the other hand, we were used to selling to research groups, or to original equipment manufacturers. It would have required a new kind of organization to meet the maintenance problem. Organizations did change in the laser industry. In the mid-1970s, Coherent setup a laboratory in which users could try out processes for $400/day. Some user ideas were crazy. We got a call from one guy who wanted to cut grass, and from one who wanted to cut wings off an airplane. Setting prices was difficult. We wanted to base them on costs and profit. But typically we had to make a lot of guesses on costs because we did not know the volume. It was not a matter of one customer with an order for 1,000; there were many customers.
Then competitors would come in at a price which we would have trouble meeting because they had no R&D costs. Firms like Spectra-Physics and Korad did a lot of R&D and were at the upper end in prices. But firms like r1etrologic Instruments and University Lasers didn’t, especially with helium-neon lasers, and they undersold us. We therefore tried to sell on the basis that our lasers were of better quality, with higher performance.