Laser pioneer Gene Watson celebrates 90th birthday

source:Industrial Laser Solution


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It gives me great pleasure to share the following reminiscence by laser pioneer Eugene Watson, on his approaching 90th birthday.—David Belforte, Editor-in-Chief, Industrial Laser Solutions

As my 90th birthday approaches on December 31, 2017, I am moved to reflect upon the origins of what has become the world's largest laser technology company with more than 5000 employees, annual revenues of $2 billion, and a market cap of over $7 billion. Coherent, under the brilliant leadership of President John Ambroseo and his team, has far exceeded our wildest dreams when we founded the company more than 50 years ago. And, as John has observed, Coherent has faithfully followed the founding vision for more than half a century, nearly unique among the technology companies that created Silicon Valley.

The founding vision

Originally, I intended what became the Coherent founding vision to guide the growth of Spectra-Physics, the leading laser manufacturer during the 1960s. In a partnership with PerkinElmer, Spectra-Physics commercialized the helium neon gas laser, invented in 1960 by Ali Javan at Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1961, I left my position as marketing and sales manager of the Instrument Division of Varian Associates to become the marketing and sales manager at Spectra-Physics, a Varian spinout. In this position, I was extremely fortunate to be able to closely observe the exciting early developments in laser technology, most notably the 1964 inventions of the first gas ion laser by Earl Bell at Spectra-Physics and the CO2 gas laser by Kumar Patel at Bell Labs. 

It was clear to me that these two gas lasers presented important commercial product opportunities: the ion laser in the rapidly developing fields of scientific, medical, and photonics research, and  the CO2 laser in various materials processing applications. Inexplicably, and extremely frustrating to me, Spectra-Physics management steadfastly refused to develop ion and CO2 laser products. I finally concluded that I should either act on my vision or forget it and leave it to others. 

Acting on the vision

I decided to act and in early 1966, I left Spectra-Physics with the intention of forming a new company, which I named Coherent Radiation Laboratories (CRL) and created the tri-symbol company logo. I say tri-symbol because I intended it to be symbolic of 1) the spark pattern produced when a high-power laser beam is incident on a material (CO2 laser), 2) a coherent photon beam exiting an optical resonator (gas ion laser), and 3) a stylized letter C, the initial letter of Coherent. I am gratified that this logo remains in use, unaltered after more than 50 years.

I knew that the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, having made a significant investment in early holography patents, had a strong interest in applying laser technology to the development of holographic data storage methodology. A visit to the DuPont headquarters revealed that they were especially interested in lasers producing wavelengths across the color spectrum. I described the experimental work that Earl Bell had done at Spectra-Physics on a multi-line krypton ion laser producing a combined beam of white light. I asked the DuPont officials if they would be interested in investing in a startup company committed to producing argon and krypton gas ion laser products. They replied that they did not invest in startups, but would possibly be interested if we were to establish such an enterprise.

Coherent becomes a reality

Earl Bell and I immediately began to discuss the formation of the new company, being confident that we could meet the DuPont requirements based on Earl's earlier success with gas ion laser experiments. Unfortunately for both of us, Earl withdrew from being the founding laser scientist to avoid what he perceived to be the potential stigma of betraying Spectra-Physics, even though that company had refused to pursue the CO2 and ion laser opportunities. To finance the new enterprise, I sold my Varian stock for $20,000 (then a princely sum) and quickly recruited a team of four technologists, including laser scientists James Hobart and Steve Jarrett, electronics engineer Robert Rorden, and mechanical engineer Wayne Mefferd. Early in 1966, we set up shop in my home in Palo Alto, the laser lab occupying the laundry room.

With the new company now a reality, I again visited the DuPont folks and we quickly negotiated a multi-faceted deal with the goal of establishing CRL as a leading laser products manufacturer. DuPont agreed to fund the development expenses for a CO2 laser product to be sold and delivered to a bona-fide customer within nine months. This was to be a demonstration of the ability of the new team to develop, manufacture, and deliver gas laser products.

While this was an extremely ambitious goal, we agreed since the CO2 laser was then, as now, the simplest gas laser to produce. We met this milestone by delivering our first CO2 laser product to the Boeing Manufacturing Research Lab in Seattle within the nine-month time limit. To satisfy DuPont's ion laser needs, we agreed that they would cover the development costs for two krypton lasers to be delivered to their Holotron subsidiary, on an extended schedule due to the complexity of gas ion laser tube design and development. In return for this significant level of product development support, DuPont received an option to acquire 40% of the new CRL enterprise.

As it subsequently developed, the DuPont company officials could not exercise their purchase option due to a directive from the DuPont Executive Committee temporarily restricting the flow of cash outside of the company. As has been recorded elsewhere,1,2 I then offered the DuPont option to the Rockefeller Family and Associates, which they subsequently exercised, thus assuring the future of the Coherent Radiation Laboratory enterprise, later shortened to Coherent.

Eugene (Gene) Watson; Centennial, WY 82055; (307) 742-7162; ewatson@wyoming.com.


1. See https://goo.gl/EPFSbU.

2. See https://goo.gl/jHsxwb.

Note: Following his resignation as Coherent's first CEO in 1968, Watson participated in the founding of a number of other laser-based technology companies, including Quanta-Ray, Lasertechnics, Chromex, Detection Limit, and DeltaNu.