26 Feb 2024
4 minute read

Inventing the devices that underpin how the world communicates

IBM and the IEEE honored the invention of the semiconductor laser and those who helped develop it, in an event at IBM Research’s Yorktown lab. Their seminal work gave rise to the ways that our world stays connected today.

The original semiconductor laser team at IBM Research, from left to right: Gerald Burns, Marshall I. Nathan, Gordon Lasher, Frederick H. Dill Jr., and William P. Dumke.

IBM and the IEEE honored the invention of the semiconductor laser and those who helped develop it, in an event at IBM Research’s Yorktown lab. Their seminal work gave rise to the ways that our world stays connected today.

In the early 1960s, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center was brand new. Opened in 1961, scientists were eager to start working in such a massive, beautiful space dedicated to uncovering the future of computing through fundamental research. And within a year of the facility opening its doors, a group of researchers did just that.

In the autumn of 1962, Marshall Nathan, William Dumke, Gerald Burns, Frederick Dill, and Gordon Lasher unveiled — coincidentally at nearly the same time as groups at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and GE — their first demonstration of the semiconductor laser. The diode laser they built paved a path for many future breakthroughs that underpin much of the way we live and interact today.

At an event on Feb. 23, IBM Research and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) honored the invention of the semiconductor laser, with an IEEE Milestone award. In attendance were Dill and Nathan, the surviving two of the five original researchers on the laser project, along with family members representing the researchers who passed, former heads of IBM Research, and current leaders at the company. Also at the event were many of the researchers who took the group’s original ideas and built them into world-changing technologies, such as lasers for optical communication in long-haul fiber-optic networks, data centers, and supercomputers.

Photo 0Q0A0674.jpgDill recieveing a framed photo of himself and the rest of the original semiconductor laser team from IBM Research's Will Green, program director for corporate technology.

The concept of a laser itself was a new invention at the time, with the first working demonstration of a laser only taking place in 1960. The team at IBM Research designed a diode no larger than a grain of rice that would generate a beam of light at a specific wavelength when an electrical current is passed through the diode’s junction. It's unsurprising, given that the laser was so new, that other research groups were working on the same concept. IEEE also honored the teams at MIT and GE in separate events.

1966_injection_laser.pngThe IBM Research demonstration of the semiconductor laser used a gallium arsenide p-n diode, patterned into a small optical cavity with an etched mesa structure. When forward biased, electrons and holes were injected into the junction and recombined radiatively to emit light. Some of that light bounced around multiple times inside the cavity, stimulating emission of additional radiation and eventually reaching laser threshold.

Soon after the first breakthroughs, IBM researchers were focused on improving the initial concept. Two of the early researchers, Webster Howard and Frank Fang, were focused on getting the laser to operate continuously. They borrowed a helium dewar from another team and managed to get a constant laser beam at 1.9 Kelvin (-456.25 °F). They were then asked — what about at room temperature?

Howard said it would require many more innovations to get there, speaking at the event. “But subsequent innovations followed quickly in a place like this,” he added. Teams over the years were indeed able to produce constant lasers at room temperature, giving rise to several revolutionary technologies. For example, in the 1990s, IBM formed the Laser Enterprise, an independent business unit dedicated to building high-reliability pump lasers for fiber-optic telecom products in trans-oceanic links.

Photo 0Q0A0762.jpgL-R: Eric Nathan, Marie Howard, Neil Burns, Rosalie Nathan, Andrew Burns, Marshall Nathan, Tracie Burns, Mark Fank, Frank Fang, and Webster Howard, together at a reception in the IBM Research Think Lab after the event.

It's hard to overstate the impact that laser diodes have had on the world. By being able to generate lasers at room temperature, many world-changing technologies were born, from the fiber-optic networks that ferry the internet’s data around the world, to the ability to read information on disc drives like CDs, to barcode scanners, and even FaceID authentication and the humble optical mouse. Today, roughly 5 exabytes (that’s 5,000,000,000 gigabytes) of information flow through fiber-optic cables for the internet every single day.

The event was hosted at the same research center in Yorktown Heights, New York, that Nathan and colleagues worked at more than 60 years ago. From the outside, it doesn't look like much has changed since those days — the architectural design that Eero Saarinen laid out is still as stunning as ever — but what happens inside has been revolutionized many times since those early days. And in the lab where the IEEE Milestone plaque commemorating the original semiconductor laser was unveiled, attendees were able to glimpse at what’s next in computing — much of which wouldn’t be possible without those early breakthroughs.

C0AA68A0-0431-4564-A24C-E463A09D0729_1_201_a.jpegL-R: IEEE Tappan Zee Subsection Chair Robert Pellegrino, IBM Research Director Darío Gil, and IEEE Region Delegate-Elect/Director-Elect Charles Rubenstein, with the semiconductor laser Milestone.

Before the formal proceedings took place, Dill and Nathan, as well as family members representing Dumke, Burns, and Lasher, were shown around the recently relaunched Think Lab. The new space contains the world’s most advanced quantum computer, the IBM Quantum System Two, and a cluster of the new prototype AI chip, the IBM AIU. These systems are running real workloads around the clock, as visitors learn more about the work happening at IBM Research.

These machines represent the convergence that IBM Research is currently working towards, where AI computing resources, quantum computers, and classical high-performance computing can all work in harmony to unlock answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems. And getting those machines, often located around the world, to talk to each other, would not be possible without the breakthroughs that happened in these same halls all those years ago.


26 Feb 2024