The Past and Future of Laser Weapons: A Big Think Timeline

The U.S. Navy has successfully tested a sea-bound laser weapon, ushering in a new era of warfare. In light of this news, Big Think presents a timeline of the history of laser technology. 

What's the Big Idea:  Scientists with the U.S. Navy last week unveiled its new 15KW ship-bound laser weapon, which caused a ship 1 mile away to burst into flames. This is just the latest in a series of events that point to laser technology as the future of ballistics weapons. Dr. Evil would be proud.

Timeline: While laser weapons have existed in science fiction for years, they have had only limited success in reality—until recently, that is. Today Big Think looks back at the history of lasers over the past century.

1917: Albert Einstein theorizes the foundations for the laser, by pointing out that stimulated emission of radiation is possible.  

June 1959: Gordon Gould, a Columbia University doctoral student first publishes the term "laser"—short for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." 

May 1960: Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu constructs the first fully functioning laser.

May 1972: U.S. signs Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, limiting the use of anti-ballistic missiles to defend against nuclear missile strikes.

March 1983: Despite the ABM Treaty, President Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) intended to protect against a Soviet nuclear attack. Lasers are a crucial system in the initiative, though two major issues limit their viability: how to derive the massive amounts of energy necessary to power a laser and where to mount the (often gigantic) machinery necessary to do so.

September 1985: A Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) destroys a Titan missile booster, marking the first successful deployment of laser weapon technology. Subsequent tests, however, show only mixed results, and public favor turns against laser weapons, with many renaming Reagan's initiative "Star Wars."

November 2002: A powerful anti-missile laser, called Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), developed jointly by the U.S. and Israel successfully downs an incoming artillery round. Despite THEL's success, the project is eventually scrapped due to bulkiness and high cost.

December 2002: President George W. Bush commits to new missile defense systems, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and changing the initiative to Missile Defense Agency (MDA). 

February 2010: Boeing's YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, a powerful chemical laser mounted inside a jumbo jet, successfully destroys a ballistic missile while in flight.

May 2010: U.S. defense firm Raytheon Missile Systems destroys 4 unmanned drones from a Navy warship, marking the first successful laser test in a marine environment. (Previously, sea air had interfered with lasers' functioning.) Known as the Laser Close-In Weapon System (LCIWS), Raytheon's weapon has an invisible 50kw beam that is capable of shooting down aircrafts from several miles away. This development has been hailed as "the beginning of a new era in missile technology." Raytheon says its new weapon could be deployed as soon as 2016.

April 2011: In a demonstration near California's San Nicholas island, a 15 KW laser weapon mounted on the USS Paul Foster sets fire to an inflatable boat from a mile away. This is the first time a ship-bound laser has been used to destroy another vessel. 

See the aftermath of the laser attack here:

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less