Gordon Gould, laser shows and space battles

If you were young in the late 70s/early 80s, you may have a special appreciation for today’s subject. Remember those high-tech night club laser shows that were so popular at the time? Well, today we celebrate the invention of the laser.

On this day back in 1957, the American physicist Gordon Gould, noted down the principles of ‘Light Amplified by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’, or ‘LASER’ in a dated notebook entry. His notes also included various applications for laser light, and he was the first to coin the term ‘LASER’ at a conference in 1959.

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Sadly Gould’s patenting savvy at the time didn’t match his physics skills, and his 1959 patent application was denied by the US Patent Office. The USPO subsequently went on to grant a patent in 1960 to Bell Laboratories, whose scientists, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, were independently and in parallel to Gould, also working on the concept of lasers.

This effectively ‘robbed’ Gould of his share of the benefits – money, prestige, science acumen – derived from the invention. Not willing to accept this fate, Gould took the matter to court, an action that set in motion 28 years of lawsuits. He won a minor patent in 1977, but it was only in 1987 that he succeeded in achieving a major victory, claiming patents for a number of laser devices.

To this day, science historians are not in agreement about who to give primary credit for the invention of the laser, but there is no doubt that Gould deserves a large portion of the credit.

Since its discovery, many different types of lasers have been developed, producing emissions in ways too intricate to try and discuss in a blog post. However, the key feature of a laser beam is its high degree of spatial and temporal coherence. ‘Spatial coherence’ means there is very little diffraction in a laser beam, so it can be focused on a tiny spot over a significant distance. ‘Temporal coherence’ means the wave phase of the light beam is correlated over a large distance, producing a polarised wave at a single frequency.

Lasers are not just important scientific tools – they’re also a great subject for science photography.
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Of course lasers are far more useful than simply creating special effects light shows. They have become a ubiquitous part of modern society, being used in electronics, information technology, medicine, industry and military applications. In any single day you may encounter lasers in barcode scanners, CD players, computer hard disks, laser printers and more.

Thanks to their precise focusing ability, lasers are used in a range of medical applications, including surgery, treatment of kidney stones, eye treatments etc. They are also used in cosmetic skin treatments. Their accurate cutting ability makes them extremely useful in many modern industrial cutting and part-making applications. They are also an integral part of many military systems, including guidance and electro-optical defence systems.

And perhaps most importantly, judging by countless science fiction movies over the years, lasers will be absolutely indispensable as the weapon of choice to defend our planet and obliterate enemy space ships!

Samuel Colt, creator of an American icon

Today we celebrate the birthday of Samuel Colt (July 19, 1814 – January 10, 1862). He did not grow to be very old, but in his lifetime he did establish an American icon, Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Company). Through his company, he developed the first viable mass produced revolver.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts at getting a gun-making business off the ground, Colt got his break when the Texas Rangers ordered 1000 of his revolvers in 1847, during the American Civil War with Mexico. His guns were also used by both the North and the South during the American Civil War. The 1872 Colt Single Action Army revolver (also known as the Model P, the Peacemaker and the Colt 45) has become one of the best known sidearms in history.

Colt’s Manufacturing Company – still going strong 150 years after the death of its founder.
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Even though he did not invent the revolver, he did contribute meaningful practical adaptations to the design. Samuel Colt’s real innovation, however, lay in his use of an assembly line approach to manufacturing and using interchangeable parts in the construction of his guns. This approach, enabling him to be more efficient and cost-effective than his competition, placed him at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.  In Colt’s words, “The first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”

Colt was also an advertising and marketing pioneer, employing techniques like celebrity endorsement and corporate gifts to promote his wares. He may at times have gone a bit too far in terms of ‘marketing’, however, having often been accused of promoting his weapons through bribery, threats and monopoly.

Reading up on the man, its clear that Colt was a larger than life character who thought big, lived extravagantly, and didn’t shy away from conflict and controversy.

In 2006, Samuel Colt was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It’s Drawing Day – time to get creative

Happy Drawing Day, everyone! (Or perhaps I should say Happy Pencil Day – there seems to be some disagreement on the correct title of this day.)

To participate is easy – simply grab a pencil and start drawing, and most importantly, share your artwork with as many as possible. And don’t fret if you think you’re not artistic – this day is not so much about great art as it is about nurturing your creative side, and about sharing.

You can share your doodles with friends, or you can even go global and upload your drawings on the Drawing Day website.

Come on, drop that daily chore, and get drawing – it’s good for your soul.

Despite the apparent ease of drawing with a pencil, artists often prefer to work with graphite sticks as it allows a greater range of creative expression.
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By the way (this is Sciencelens, after all), did you know that the “lead” inside a pencil that makes it write is not lead at all, but a mix of graphite (a type of carbon), clay, wax, and chemicals?  Coloured pencils work the same, except that they have colour pigment added to the mix instead of graphite.

Pencils are manufactured by mixing ground graphite (or colour pigment), clay and water, and squeezing out this mixture into long spaghetti-like strings.  These are cut into pencil lengths, baked, and then covered with a wax coating to make them write smoothly.

So how do they get them inside the wood? The wood around a pencil may look solid, making it appear as though a hole was drilled through the wood to insert the graphite, but that sounds like some extreme manufacturing.  In fact, most wooden pencils are made from blocks of wood cut into slats.  Grooves, half as deep as the graphite string, are cut into the slats, and the graphite strings are placed in these grooves. Another grooved slat is glued on top of the first, encasing the graphite in the wood.  The slats are then cut into individual pencils, sanded and painted to give it the appearance of a solid structure.

Pencils are sharpened to reveal the graphite inside, and when you write, fiction causes a small amount of the graphite from the core of the pencil to be deposited on the paper, creating your images or words.