Thursday, April 12, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Lasers

It's quite possible that I should have put this post under "E" for "energy weapons," but, see, I really love the idea of the exo-suit, so I couldn't leave that out, and it's lasers that most people associate with energy weapons, so I figured I may as well stick with it. This one is going to be a bit more convoluted than the others, though, so try to keep up. This way, please...

Let's first step back to 1898. Martians were invading the Earth. Well, at least, they were in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The Martian's tripods were equipped with heat rays that they used to destroy, well, everything. This is the most significant early example of the raygun. It may not have been the first (I don't actually know, but I couldn't find anything earlier), but anything that was earlier has been mostly forgotten.

Rayguns in fiction became increasingly popular through the early 20th century. In fact, they sort of became standard fare in pulp science fiction including Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and others. They also became pretty standard in comic books.

1930s edition Buck Rogers raygun

Then, Einstein happened...

Well, let's re-examine that. In 1917, Einstein put forth the Quantum Theory of Radiation which established the theoretic foundation for irradiating light waves. It's this theory that would later lead to lasers. But, in the meantime, rayguns flourished in fiction.

And, now, we're to the part where, maybe, this entry should have been placed under the letter R. Prior to World War II, there was research going on to develop rayguns (in the United States, at any rate, and, possibly, in Germany (actually, probably, everywhere, but I don't have that information)). That research coupled with some of Tesla's ideas (also from 1917) lead to the development of radar.

But we still didn't have any rayguns.

Finally, in the '50s, the first significant breakthroughs in laser technology began to happen, and, in 1959, Gordon Gould published the term L.A.S.E.R. (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). The first operating laser followed in 1960. Science fiction went crazy, dropping rayguns for laser guns. But only for a moment...

One interesting factoid about that:
The original Star Trek had two pilot episodes. I bet some of you even knew that. The first pilot episode, "The Cage," was produced in 1964 (and remained unreleased until 1988) and included lasers. The first pilot didn't convince the studio that the concept would work, but they were still intrigued by the idea, so they made the odd request for a second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." The interesting bit? It had already become apparent by the time of the 1966 production of the new pilot that lasers were not going to be practical as guns or weapons, so they changed the name of the devices in Star Trek to "phasers."

But the military really wanted laser weapons, and science fiction continued to be full of laser type weapons even if they didn't call them lasers. Star Wars got blasters, Doctor Who had stasers and all sorts of other things, and Starblazers got a wave motion gun just to name a few. And the military... well, they made this big laser and mounted it on the top of an airplane and sent it up to shoot down drones or something. But it was a cloudy day, and the clouds totally dissipated the lasers, and the project was mostly dropped (and, no, I can't tell you where I got that information (yes, if I did, I would have to kill you)).

This, of course, did not stop Reagan from creating the Star Wars program in the '80s. That almost did work; they just couldn't get enough range out of the lasers for them to actually be effective. But it did lead to one of my favorite movies of all time
Real Genius!

So... here we are in 2012, and we still don't have laser guns or flying cars. Or laser guns on flying cars. I do expect the flying cars soon, but it looks like the closest we're going to have to laser guns for a while is laser sighting. Sure, you can put someone's eye out with it if they agree not to look away, and we can cut things with really big lasers, but they're not really portable at that level and need huge amounts of energy.

But let's go back to rayguns... actually, let's go back to that very first one: H.G. Wells' heat ray. The military rolled out the first example of the non-lethal Active Denial System in 2010.
What we have here is, basically, the realized form of Wells' heat ray. It works by directing microwave energy at the victim causing the skin to attain a burning sensation. Most test subjects reach their pain threshold within 3 seconds, and no one has gone beyond 5 seconds. At the moment, it's being used as a non-lethal weapon, but there's nothing to keep it from being used in more lethal ways if the government wanted the development to go in those directions. The one mounted on the humvee above is for crowd control, but they are working on portable devices.

There you have your fiction to reality, just not with lasers. But lasers still power the imagination, and militaries around the world are still working on laser-based weapons. There have been claims of ground-based lasers that are capable of taking down aircraft, but they require enormous power sources. Interestingly enough, other uses of lasers have stayed pretty confined to science, not science fiction; however, if we ever do make it out into space, I would expect the weaponized use of lasers to reach science fiction proportions almost immediately since there are no atmospheric conditions to deal with.


  1. Real Genius! Well done, sir.
    We've worked a long time on lasers with nothing to show for it. No sharks with frickin' lasers on their heads. No lasers for the front of my car. (Yes, I am an impatient driver.)

  2. I must have seen Real Genius a dozen times. One of my favorites too. I always had this idea for a story - well, sketch really - where a these guys find/steals a couple of real handheld gamma lasers. They end up shooting each other with them, but no one realizes it because there is nothing to see, no bright lights, just some clicking in the weapon.

    In the end, they die of massive tissue damage hours later, most of the intervening time they combatants were arguing about whether or not the guns actually did anything.

    Which is my point, TV lasers are awesome, because they are pretty and make cool sounds. Real life lasers don't do that. Even those laser tag games are lame because to even have a chance of seeing the laser the place has to be so foggy you almost can't breathe.

  3. Probably the least possible conception of lasers are the lightsabers in Star Wars, which are supposed to be like laser swords.

    I guess Superman was on to something with the heat vision thing though.

  4. Life goal, own a laser gun. Or a lightsaber - I'm not picky. When is someone going to start working on that? And Real Genius...pretty genius.

  5. The biggest thing lasers have ever done for me is allow me to torment my girlfriend's cat. And if that's as good as it ever gets...meh. I'm okay with that.

  6. What an excellent breakdown!

    Now, what about lightsabers?

  7. @A beer for the shower: lasers + cats = highly entertaining!

    I love that 1930s raygun, it's so cool looking. I read recently that jetpacks are a reality, they're just really really expensive.

  8. This post is amazing! Not just a history lesson on the genesis of lasers, but a science lesson thrown in, too! It gladdens the heart of my inner geek to read it!

    I'm so glad to have discovered your blog through the A to Z Challenge. I'll be back for more. :)

  9. Awesome post. The new crowd control weapons are the scariest. I don't want to be microwaved! I am not human popcorn!

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

  10. Alex: I don't actually want lasers for my car; I want a huge hammer that comes off the roof and smacks the other vehicles. That would just be so much more fun, don'tchathink?

    Rusty: There's a short story I read long ago (that I wish I could remember the name of) about this guy arriving on another planet and being attacked by some kind of indigenous dog. The problem is that he only has a laser weapon, and it doesn't make any noise or allow the dogs to make any noise when they die, so none of the other dogs know there's anything to be scared of, so they just keep coming and coming. In the end, he has to make some kind of thing that makes a huge noise to scare them away. Basically, the laser, even though it killed the dogs, was useless.

    Grumpy: Lightsabers in a moment. The only issue with the heat vision is that it looks like lasers in the comic book. heh

    S.L.: Well, there are some guys working on lightsabers. They kind of work. Except they emit so much heat, they'd kill anyone holding it.

    ABftS: Hey, well, that's fun. But, I bet, you own CDs and DVDs and stuff, and those are made with lasers.

    Matthew: Okay, lightsabers:
    My wife says I should have mentioned this in the post, but they're not rayguns... anyway...
    Lightsabers were originally called laser swords. I don't think they were even originally made of light but more like regular swords that emitted laser energy or something. Of course, then, they dropped the word laser out of everything and they decided the beam should be made out of light and all of that stuff. As they ended up, though, they don't really have anything to do with lasers, because they're supposed to be beams of focused plasma.

  11. Stephsco: Yeah, jetpacks are real, but they only last a few minutes. Basically, you go up, and you come back down. There is a guy that has developed a winged jetpack that can fly a bit longer, but you have to come out of a plane to use it; otherwise, it's up and down. I think the longest flight time so far on a groundbased takeoff is around 4 minutes.

    Michael: Oh, there's some guy working on that, too. Of course, part of what he's worked out is that there is not enough raw material on the Earth to make one.

    Kern: Thanks for stopping in! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

    Elizabeth: Yeah, they kind of scare me, too. I mean, sure, right now, they're non-lethal, but that's -only- because we've made them non-lethal. There's nothing to stop someone from, oh, continuing to boil people for longer than 5 seconds, and there's no threat of harmful gases in the area.

  12. Love that movie (Real Genius)! I was sad to realize I do not own it, which I must remedy.

    Interesting info on weapon uses for them. We've come a long way in using lasers for other things, though, so all is not lost. They are mostly medical, but there are thousands of people out there who are grateful for continued work on lasers.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  13. Ugh, I hate crowd control weapons, and the ADS is one of the most horrible IMO.

    Great post, Andrew! I'm definitely here to stay. ;)

  14. Shannon: Oh, I think people would be surprised if they knew all the ways that lasers are being used that we just don't see. Kind of like nanotechnology.

    Vero: Yeah, the potential of that one really scares me.

    Glad to have you! :)