Before the laser - a story of light

The science behind the laser started centuries earlier with scientists such as Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. Traditionally, the UK has played a major role in laser science and its applications.

Key facts

Isaac Newton

Born: 4 January 1643

Died: 31 March 1727

Between 1670 and 1672, Isaac Newton investigated the refraction of light and showed that a prism could split white light into a spectrum of colours.

The same principle applies to water droplets, which can act as tiny prisms and refract the Sun’s rays to form rainbows.

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James Clerk Maxwell

Born: 13 June 1831

Died: 5 November 1879

Maxwell made remarkable contributions to physics by uniting what were previously unrelated experiments, equations, and observations of electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent ‘electromagnetic’ theory.

Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves at the speed of light. His equations laid the foundations for many of the scientific and technological advancements during the 20th century including special relativity and quantum mechanics.

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Albert Einstein

Born: 14 March 1879

Died: 18 April 1955

A paper written by Einstein in 1905, proposed that light consists of quantised particles (later called photons). This inspired the quantum mechanical concept that light can exist in both a wave and particle form.

Just over a decade later, in 1917, Einstein established the theory of stimulated emission of radiation, setting the scientific foundations for the subsequent discovery of the laser.

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Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000