A novel form of laser frequency switching is devised which extends coherent optical transient studies to a 100-psec time scale. The technique incorporates a traveling-wave electro-optic element which imposes with unit efficiency a uniform time-varying phase and thus a frequency shift on a cw laser beam. In contrast to earlier optical traveling-wave modulators which are driven by a microwave oscillator, here the optical phase change is induced rapidly and easily by a dc electric field pulse that propagates in a microwave guide either parallel or antiparallel to the light wave. This advance enables optical free-induction decay (FID) studies on a subnanosecond time scale and reveals such new features as a rapid first-order FID that dephases with the inhomogeneous dephasing time T2*. The well-known nonlinear FID can interfere with the first-order component at short times and decays over the much longer period T2[1+(1+χ2T1T2)12], where χ is the Rabi frequency. A complete analytical expression is derived for optical FID of a transition subject to homogeneous and inhomogeneous broadening and supports detailed observations of the sodium D1 line. © 1979 The American Physical Society.