"It was a flash. You saw a round bright red spot on the wall."
That's the way retired physicist Theodore H. Maiman remembers the world's first laser beam, which he produced 26 years ago from a ruby crystal in a research laboratory in Malibu, Calif.
Maiman knew at the time that his invention was significant, but he had no idea how far-reaching it would be.
"I didn't know there was going to be a supermarket scanner," says Maiman, 59. "I didn't know there would be a home compact disc. But it was clear that if you could make such a clear and coherent light, it would be a technological breakthrough."
The red laser beam that Maiman and his colleagues produced in 1960 was the brightest beam of light ever seen. Had he used a lens to focus the beam even more narrowly, he says, "I would have been able to burn a hole right through the wall."
"It was an awesome difference, to take the same rough amount of energy and concentrate it 100 million times," he recalls. "Knowing that, we knew you could do all sorts of things you couldn't do before."
Still, industrial and medical application of the laser was not immediate. In contrast, the transistor was applied almost immediately because one of its main uses was obvious -- the replacement of vacuum tubes in radios and television sets.
"With the laser, it was different," he says. "It took a while to realize what could be done with it. We're still learning how to use it."
Maiman immediately sent off an article reporting his breakthrough to the journal Physical Review Letters, only to have it rejected, he says, because it was "misunderstood." That put him in an odd position: Having won the highly competitive race to be first with the laser, he was in danger of getting "scooped" by any scientist who made a similar discovery later on.
He then submitted his article to the British journal Nature, which published it in August 1960, about three months after he had produced the original laser beam. In the meantime, Maiman's employer, Hughes Aircraft Co., was equally afraid of getting scooped by its competitors. A month before publication of Maiman's results, the company arranged a press conference in New York to announce the invention of the laser.
The conference room was jammed, but to Maiman's dismay, most of the reporters' questions focused on the laser's potential use as a weapon -- a latter-day version of H.G. Wells' "death ray."
The next day, the laser story was on the front pages of almost every newspaper in the country -- usually under headlines referring to science fiction. A typical one read: "L.A. Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray."
"One of the Los Angeles papers had red headlines about two inches high," Maiman recalls.
"To this day," he says, "I don't know of one person who's been killed by a laser. But it's healed a lot of people."
For nearly a decade, however, the public perceived the laser mainly as "some sort of death ray," ignoring its growing applications in medicine, communications and industry.
"I ran into Bette Davis at a party, and the first thing she said to me was, 'How does it feel to have made something that brings such destruction to the mankind?' My mouth dropped."
Davis later apologized, but Maiman says it was clear she still thought of the laser not as a useful tool but as a force for destruction.
But in the 1970s, Maiman noticed a change.
Instead of accusing him of inventing the death ray, people started coming up to him and saying things like, "Oh, I want to thank you. My grandmother's eyes were saved."