photonics technologies currently in use, and they are truly forbidding where one seeks to predict the economic impact of future applications that have only begun to emerge.
Nonetheless, it seems clear that the laser has been adopted in a diverse array of applications, some of which have underpinned the growth of entirely new methods for the transmission of information.3 Equally important is the way in which continued innovation in laser technology has enabled and complemented innovation in technologies using lasers. This mutual enhancement further extends the adoption of these applications as performance improves and costs decline. Moreover, the appearance of new applications and markets for lasers has created strong incentives for further investment in innovation in lasers. All of this feedback and self-reinforcing dynamics are classic features of general-purpose technologies. Lasers are one example of such a technology within the field of photonics.
The development of laser technology shares a number of characteristics with other postwar U.S. innovations, in fields ranging from information technology to biotechnology. Like these other technologies, much of the research (especially the fundamental research) that underpinned the laser and its predecessor, the maser, relied on federal funding. Similar to the experience with IT, much of this federal R&D funding was motivated by the national security applications of lasers during a period of high geopolitical tension.4 Industry funded a considerable amount of laser-related R&D, much of which focused on development and applications, but
3 Interestingly, optical communication was the only foreseen application of the laser in 1958. See, for example, Sette, D. 1965. Laser applications to communication. Zeitschrift für angewandte Mathematik und Physik ZAMP 16(1):156-169.
4 Bromberg, J.L. 1991. The Laser in America, 1950-1970. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. In this study, Bromberg emphasizes another characteristic of federally and industrially financed R&D in the field of lasers: the extent of linkage among research and researchers in U.S. industry, federal laboratories, and academia during the 1945-1980 period: “Academic scientists were linked to industrial scientists through the consultancies that universities held in large and small firms, through the industrial sponsorship of university fellowships, and through the placement of university graduates and postdoctoral fellows in industry. They were linked by joint projects, of which a major example here is the Townes-Schawlow paper of [sic] optical masers, and through sabbaticals that academics took in industry and industrial scientists took in universities. Academic scientists were linked with the Department of Defense R&D groups, and with other government agencies through tours of duty in research organizations such as the Institute for Defense Analyses, through work at DoD-funded laboratories such as the Columbia Radiation Laboratory or the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics, and through government study groups and consultancies. They were also linked by the fact that so much of their research was supported by the Department of Defense and NASA” (p. 224). Similar linkages among industry, government, and military research characterized the early years of development of the U.S. computer and semiconductor industries, in contrast to their European and Japanese counterparts.