Laser cutters might seem like a modern invention – and while they’re commonplace in many businesses today, they’ve been around for a lot longer than you might imagine. There’s a lot to learn about the development of the laser cutters that we know and use daily now, and in fact, much of the work that led to laser cutters being possible was done during the 1950s! In this post, we’re taking a look at how the laser was first developed, how that turned into using lasers for cutting materials, and what the future might hold for laser cutter technology, and users of laser cutters.
Who made the first laser?
It depends on what you’re asking here. We’ll get to who created the first laser cutters in a moment, but we can’t talk about laser cutters without talking about how lasers evolved – so let’s have a look at that first.
The first device that was developed before the laser was the Microwaves Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, which became known as the MASER. The maser came about as a result of the work by American physicist Charles Townes during World War Two. After the war was over, he continued his work at the Bell Laboratories, with his research evolving from Einstein’s theory of stimulated emission. This is where energy can be extracted from transitions in atoms and molecules, and from this, Townes developed the idea of photon flux, which were all alike due to the amplification of magnetic waves. The maser was mostly used in labs, rather than in military or industrial settings, and today, they aren’t found as often as lasers are. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and in outer space research – they’re used as low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes, as well as in deep-space spacecraft communication ground stations. Research from 2018 suggests that they might be used in other settings in the near future though, so this is an area to keep an eye on.
In 1957, Townes established that very short waves would be easier to amplify radiation. Together with his brother in law and former postdoctoral student Arthur Schwalow, they created a theory for working with lasers as an ‘optimal maser’. This meant putting atoms to be stimulated in a long, narrow cavity that has mirrors at each end, one of which would have an area that wasn’t silvered. This would allow some of the rays to leak out. The mirrors meant the rays could ping back and forth inside, and the atoms would be likely to radiate – the combination of which creates the laser beam.
During this time, while he was a graduate student at Columbia University, Gordon Gould had discussions about the laser with Townes, and further developed the ideas they spoke about. This led to him being named the researcher to create the LASER – the Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
Because the race to create the laser was incredibly close, there was huge rivalry, and there is still much debate over who was the original inventor of the laser, and this has been discussed for years. Gould was eventually issued four patents in 1977, which made him an incredibly rich man – he made millions of dollars from his work.
While Townes, Schawlow, and Gould all understood how a laser might work, none of them were able to create the first working prototype. This was first created by Theodore Maiman, and this first synthetic ruby laser that could produce a perfectly straight red laser beam was created in 1960.
Although there is a lot of dispute over who the true creator of the laser is, without the work of Charles Townes, Arthur Schalow, and Gordon Gould, Maiman wouldn’t have been able to create the ruby laser as he did. This work was all essential to the development of the laser cutters that we know and love today.
You can see the original laser, which is held at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany, in the video below.
Key dates in the invention of the laser
If you’re looking for a timeline to the invention of the laser? These are the dates you need.
15 December 1958 – Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes publish their paper “Infrared and optical masers” in Physical Review.
15 July 1959 – Ali Javan publishes a proposal for creating a gas laser in Physical Review Letters.
16 May 1960 – Theodore Maiman observes pulsed lasing in pink ruby.
7 July 1960 – The Hughes Research Laboratories announce Maiman’s laser at a press conference.
20 July 1960 – Maiman observes the first pencil beam after improving his ruby laser design.
1 August 1960 – The Bell Labs create a version of Maiman’s pulsed laser beam device based on the press photographs.
6 August 1960 – Maiman’s letter entitled Stimulated optical radiation in ruby is published in Nature.
25 September 1960 – The team at Bell Labs are able to send a laser beam for 25 miles, from Crawford Hill to Murray Hill in New Jersey.
1 October 1960 – Physical Review publishes the Bell Labs paper about ruby lasers.
5 October 1960 – Bell Labs formally announce their ruby laser at a press conference.
12 December 1960 – Javan and his team create the first gas laser.
30 January 1961 – Javan’s work on the gas laser is published in Physical Review Letters.
31 January 1961 – At yet another press conference, the Bell Labs team announce the gas laser.
1961 – Willard Boyle and Nelson create the first ruby laser that can be operated continuously.
Do lasers occur naturally?
While physicists and engineers were responsible for creating the laser here on Earth, Townes noted in an essay in 1960 that lasers do indeed exist naturally, just not on our planet.
“Natural lasers have now been found in astronomical objects; for example, infrared light is amplified by carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, excited by solar radiation, and intense radiation from stars stimulates laser action in hydrogen atoms in circumstellar gas clouds.”
He goes on to question that since some of the required physics were already understood, why had lasers taken so long to create, and were there other important phenomena that had been missed? Of course, this being over 60 years ago, science does understand a lot more now – but that is one of the keys to science being successful, questioning what might have been missed.
How were lasers used initially?
Once scientists established how they could create lasers, they wanted to see exactly what they could do with them. Townes says that it was regularly suggested to him that the laser was “a solution looking for a problem” (Irnee D’Haenens was just one of those that made this claim) – and in the beginning, before scientists had really understood what applications lasers could have, it was understandable why this was an opinion. As the laser was developed, there were all kinds of experiments to uncover the possibilities, as we’ll cover next.
During their initial research, Townes and Schawlow thought that laser beams would be used in basic research, and for sending signals through air and space. Gould was the one to envision the powerful laser beams to be used for cutting and drilling – much like we see today. However, both were correct, and lasers are now used extensively in both types of situation, and in so many other applications.
Have you ever wondered how 3D holograms work? Well, that’s another thing you can thank the developers of the laser for. In 1963, Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks used lasers to create the first 3D holograms. This might not seem particularly exciting compared with today’s technology, but at that time, this was ground breaking stuff.
Another great example of scientists being playful with lasers to uncover their potential was a 1969 experiment that sent a laser beam to the Moon. A retroreflector had been placed on the Moon’s surface by astronauts that were there on a U.S. Apollo mission, and when fired, the laser hit the retroreflector and was sent back to Earth. While this was essentially sending a laser beam to be reflected back – something that scientists could do simply because they could – it uncovered the distance to the Moon by measuring the travel time of the laser. Later experiments were able to measure the distance to the moon with a precision of just over one inch, which turned out to be valuable information for future research.
Helium-neon lasers were the first type of laser to be put into use commercially, as they were able to create a visible red beam. They were used by the construction industry for projecting straight lines, but before long, eye surgeons would be able to use pulses from ruby lasers to put detached retinas back in place, without the need to cut the eye. This was much better for preventing infection and faster recovery time.
The first place that the general public found lasers was in their supermarkets, in the mid-1970s. Laser scanners revolutionised the way that supermarkets could handle checkouts, making them faster and allowing for fewer issues with price checking. After that, CD players, and laser printers soon emerged, after which more and more uses were uncovered.
Lasers in popular culture
News about the development of lasers really captured the imagination of the public, with some people even fearing their potential – and rightly so, given that lasers are now used in many weapons. Even today, lasers have great potential for the imagination – and there are some great examples of where lasers, and laser cutters can be seen in popular culture.
In movies, there are loads of examples of lasers – especially in the science fiction genre, where liberties are taken with what is currently scientifically possible! The Star Wars, and Star Trek movies both contain plenty of examples of lasers being used, while the Marvel Universe has plenty to mention too – including in Iron Man 2, and in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Laser cutters are found in the open-world, action-adventure game Subnautica, where the player is the only survivor of a spaceship crash on a planet far, far away. The player has to survive the dangers of the ocean planet – and you’ll find the laser cutter on Subnautica by heading to the Fabricator, then scanning fragments of the laser cutter to unlock the blueprint. However, the laser cutter on Subnautica isn’t quite as versatile as those we see in real life – the only thing you’ll be able to use the Subnautica laser cutter for is for opening sealed doors in Wrecks and the Aurora. You can read more about the laser cutter on Subnautica here.
In real life settings, lasers have been used by artists in many different ways – from creating light shows, to using laser cutters to create phenomenal pieces of art that simply wouldn’t have been able to be made any other way. You can read more about artists that work with laser cutters here, but examples include Kate Raudenbush, Martin Tomsky, and Dutch fashion designer Martijn van Strien – and of course, we wrote about laser cutters in the world of fashion here.
History of laser cutting
Now we’ve covered the history of how the laser was created, we can get into how laser cutters developed. Much of the development was as a result of Gould’s work and vision, but there’s a lot more to learn about, so let’s get into it.
Who made the first laser cutter?
As you might already know, there are three main types of laser cutter – and of course, they weren’t all invented at the same time, or by the same people.
The carbon dioxide laser was first created in 1963 by C. Kumar Patel at the Bell Laboratories. It was less expensive to create, and more efficient than the ruby laser developed by Theodore Maiman, which meant it became extremely popular, and remains so today. As early as 1967, it was possible to find carbon dioxide lasers with power of more than 1000 watts.
Patel has been quoted as saying the application of his carbon dioxide laser that he is most proud of is the paediatric laser tongue-tie release, otherwise known as a frenectomy – and hundreds of thousands of frenectomy procedures take place worldwide each year.
J.E. Geusic was responsible for creating the crystal laser cutter, which was developed the same year as Patel’s carbon dioxide laser cutter. This invention seriously captured the imagination of the general public, and if you’re a Bond movie fan, you’ll know why! Goldfinger, which was released in 1964 used this type of laser in the famous scene where James Bond was to be cut in two with the laser.
Further developments in laser cutting came about in 1967, when Peter Houldcroft, the Deputy Scientific Director at The Welding Institute, in Cambridge used a laser cutting nozzle with an oxygen pressure chamber. This gas jet laser was used to provide an assistant oxygen stream near the laser beam focus, and allowed him to be able to cut through sheet steel with a thickness of 1mm. Of his invention, he said:
“With the development of higher power lasers it should be possible to cut thicker and different materials including non-metals. The narrowness of the cut promises a precision not previously obtained with thermal cutting techniques.”
As they made the first cuts with their setup, they discovered that kerf width was small, and was dependent on the size of the spot focus, rather than the gas jet size. More importantly perhaps to the future of laser cutting, the edges that had been cut were free of microcracking and hot tears, and there was little to no distortion, due to the lack of mechanical forced on the material being cut. These are important to note, since they are advantages that many laser cutter manufacturers and sellers – including us – talk about a lot as reasons to invest in laser cutting technology.
The work by Houldcroft is considered to be the first commercial use of lasers for cutting. Gas assisted lasers continues to be developed, with CO2 being tested and used to create early versions of the gas assisted lasers that we see today.
Elias Snitzer was the person to create the first fibre laser in 1963, but this technology took around 20 years of development before it was possible to buy one for commercial use – and even then, they were rarely seen until the 1990s. This type of laser uses optical cable made from silica glass to guide the light, and creates a laser beam that is more exact than other types of lasers – the beam is straighter and smaller, and the lasers are efficient, low maintenance, and are inexpensive to run.
Since fibre lasers have some advantages over other types, you’re probably wondering why there was such as delay with getting fibre laser cutters to market. It is simple, and boils down to the fact that the technology required simply hadn’t been developed sufficiently before then. The type of fibre laser that Snitzer was able to create was only capable of a few milliwatts; laser cutting requires much more power. This wasn’t helped by the fact that it wasn’t yet possible to create high quality pump lights, as laser diodes hadn’t been developed sufficiently yet.
When did the first laser cutters start being produced commercially?
The first company to start using lasers as cutting devices was the Western Engineering Research Centre, in Buffalo, USA. This was in 1965, and allowed the company to manufacture wire for electrical connections without the need for diamond dies. This was important because it meant the company could make time and money savings on piercing and resizing the dies – they would take up to 24 hours to create. Unfortunately, the effects of laser beams on the human body hadn’t been established at this point, and neither had the effects of vaporised materials – which of course, meant the employees were exposed to significant health risks.
Boeing was the first company to bring laser cutting into their production lines, in 1969. They had found lasers were “an effective and economical cutting tool”, and were effective for hard materials, including titanium, Hastelloy and ceramic, when using a gas assisted laser. Later, in the 1970s, they patented the multi-beams laser-cutting technique, and were one of the first companies to cut titanium with a laser.
By 1979, Prima Industrie in Italy invented the first 3D laser cutting process, that incorporated a 5 axes rotation system, and from there on, laser cutters were widely used in all types of industries.
Which industries use laser cutters?
You’ll find laser cutters in use in all types of manufacturing, as well as in schools, colleges, and universities. Industries that have made extensive use of laser cutters include:
- Aviation and aerospace
- The automotive industry
- Motorsport, including Formula 1
- Shipping and the marine industry
- Construction and architecture
- Medical field
- Electronics manufacturing
- Furniture and lighting
- Energy and utilities
- The fashion industry – clothes and accessories, jewellery and watches
Why are laser cutters used in industry?
Each industry, and businesses within those industries see the benefits of laser cutters differently, since it depends on what they are trying to achieve. While some may use laser cutters for a particular reason, businesses quickly discovered that laser cutters offer benefits that allowed them to work far more efficiently. These reasons include:
Flexibility – laser cutters are easy to set up to complete a job, and it is simple to switch between cutting different shapes and thicknesses.
Accuracy – even the most talented of craftspeople would find it hard to create results that are as precise as a laser cutter can produce. Most laser cutters are more accurate than within 0.1mm, and this means that more detailed cuts, and intricate shapes can be made. Even lace-style effects can be made on delicate materials such as silk and paper that simply wouldn’t be possible using manual methods.
Speed – this is one of the biggest reasons that businesses use laser cutters – they’re so fast compared to manual methods, and even some machine cuts! Not only that, because of the accuracy of the cuts, and that generally, few post-cut processes are required, the finished product can be achieved much faster.
Excellent finishes – this is where businesses can make time savings. As we just mentioned, lasers cut incredibly precisely, with clean edges that don’t require further finishing.
Replicability – when you need to create a number of identical items, over and over, then laser cutting is a much better option than manual methods (which are rarely perfectly identical) and is faster than using techniques such as moulds.
Automation – when there’s a human involved in a process, there’s a chance for errors to occur. Because laser cutters are automated, chances of mistakes happening are greatly reduced.
Adaptability – laser cutters are suitable for use on a wide range of materials, and different techniques can be used on different types of materials. In some cases, a laser cutter may replace several other machines.
When did Hobarts start selling laser cutters?
Hobarts was established as a company in 1989, and there were various iterations of the business model before we moved to Kent in 1995, when we started manufacturing acrylic. We added laser cutters to our range of products in the year 2000, and in the 23 years since, we have gone out of our way to establish our name as synonymous with industry leading laser cutters and the highest quality service.
As the manufacturing industries and laser cutting have evolved, so too has the needs of our customers. We’ve needed our team to stay abreast of those evolutions, and the solutions that laser cutter manufacturers are creating. We work closely with Universal Laser Systems, which has been working with laser technology since 1988.
These continual developments are why we ensure our engineers are provided with regular in-house updates, and with the Universal Laser Systems training teams in Vienna and Arizona. This has brought us to be the top distributor for Universal Laser Systems in the UK, and across Europe, and only second worldwide. We’re also currently the only UK distributor for Universal products that can provide a fully qualified installation and training service – so if you work with another distributor, you’ll need to book a ULS engineer to install your equipment, which means additional costs.
In 2021, we partnered with Flux to bring their range of budget lasers to our customers. Flux were established in Taiwan in 2014, and are world leaders in easy to use, affordable, and user-friendly laser cutters.
How big is the global market for laser cutters?
In 2022, the global market for laser cutters was $4418.9 million in 2022, and is expected to reach $6973.3 million by 2028. The Asia-Pacific region is the biggest market for laser cutters, which includes the manufacturing powerhouses of China, India, and Japan. After that, Europe takes the largest market share, with more than 25%, followed by the US at 20%. The largest use of laser cutters in industry is the field of automotives, which is closely followed by machine industrial, consumer electronics, and aerospace.
The future of laser cutting technology
While we don’t have a crystal ball that can tell us the future, there is a lot of technology that is already in development and that we know will be successful.
The field of fibre lasers is definitely going to continue to grow and develop, with a projected growth rate of around 11%. Gas lasers will undoubtedly remain strong performers too, with an expected growth of at least 9% over the next decade.
Direct Diode Lasers have been developing over the past few years, and are being quickly refined to be more powerful. Typically, recent models of direct diode lasers have been around the low level of 2000 watts, but this type of laser cutter is now emerging at much higher power, over 8000 watts. Direct Diode Lasers have the potential to make laser cutting even more efficient than with fibre laser cutters, since it completely eliminates the middle part of the process. Not only do they offer more efficient cutting than fibre lasers, but they also have really high quality beams – so this will certainly be an aspect of laser cutting that we’ll be keeping an eye on.
We also expect there to be a lot more automation for laser cutters hitting the in the very near future. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a huge trend recently across all types of technology, and this will undoubtedly be applied to the use of lasers and laser cutters as it continues to evolve.
Since advancements in technology happen quickly, there is absolutely no doubt that there’s going to be other aspects of laser cutting that are going to develop within the next few years – and over the next decade, it is likely that laser cutting will become even more commonplace than they are now. We expect laser cutters to become more accessible than ever, with reliable budget lasers being developed and being made available, which means more home hobbyists are going to be able to have the technology available to them.
Our final thoughts
There’s more to laser cutters than you might have thought, and the history of how the laser was developed is extensive, with lots of scientists and engineers involved. Today, there are thousands of people worldwide that are experts in lasers, and laser cutting – and you don’t have to go far to find them.
We at Hobarts are experts in laser cutters, and we’re ready to help if you’re in the market for a laser cutter, and if you’re looking for laser cutter servicing, our service plans can help to ensure your laser cutter is always in great shape. If you’re looking for either a new laser cutter, a laser cutter peripheral, consumable, or servicing, we’ve got you. We’re always happy to hear from customers, whether we’ve supported your laser cutting for years, or you’re just considering your first laser. Get in touch with us today.