Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2010

It’s often claimed that you’re never more than 10 feet from a rat, and you could probably say the same about lasers. In the home and at the shops, throughout medicine, the military, and almost everywhere elsethe laser has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of modern technology.

Dr Hermione Cockburn tells the story of the invention of the laser, a battle that consumed some of the biggest names in electronics for almost two years, led to claims, counter-claims and academic back-stabbing, along with a 30-year battle over the patents. There’s no simple answer to the question “who invented the laser” so this is the story of the leading claimants, assisted by extracts from their oral histories.

The programme also shows some of the many applications that resulted from this invention. While it’s never become the ‘death-ray’ of science-fiction, it has found many military uses. In medicine, laser eye surgery’s now commonplace, but there are many more uses including the new field of photo-dynamic therapy – drugs taken in the normal way but only activated by laser light, allowing precise targeting of some cancers.

In the world of art, lasers have wowed audiences since the early days and are still stunning as we find out in a new installation on the South Bank, along with a visit to one of the world’s biggest collections of laser holography, also in London.



N.B. Some music & extracts have been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions


Dr Hermione Cockburn


Mike Hally


Mike Hally




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