Remembering the Million-Hour Laser

R.W. Dixon

On the 50th anniversary of the diode laser, Richard Dixon reminisces about the program that took the device from laboratory curiosity to the applied technology that forms the backbone for terrestrial and undersea communications.


feature5-img1.jpgBarney DeLoach shows off a million-hour laser.

Bell Labs/Alcatel-Lucent, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Hecht Collection

In the late 1960s, Bell Labs had a problem. The nation’s demand for long-distance telecommunications services was steadily increasing, but the technologies then in use—coaxial cable and point-to-point microwave transmission through the air—could not keep up with the pace. Bell mounted a considerable effort to explore a precision low-loss millimeter-wave pipe for this expansion purpose, including the design, production and installation of several miles of buried pipe to test the concept in the field—but the results were discouraging. Technically the pipe could be made to work, but it would clearly be very expensive and cumbersome to install and maintain. Thus, the company was primed to consider other alternatives.

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