The First Time the Laser Was Classified

Jeff Hecht

An argument between Bell Labs and ARPA in 1959 led to classification of a million-dollar ARPA project to make the first laser—and delayed the laser efforts of both parties.

figureAerial view of the Pentagon, Washington, DC, USA, where ARPA was housed in 1959. [Getty Images]

Why the Pentagon classified a 1959 research project to build the first laser has long been a mystery. Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes had already published their concept of an “optical maser” in Physical Review. The proposal that Gordon Gould submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; now known as DARPA) did not mention laser weapons. And ARPA had previously distributed the proposal for evaluation without classification.

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