A Blinding History of the Laser Pointer

They can wreck your eyes, and they can land you 14 years in jail for shining one at a police chopper. But where did they come from?

When I was a freshman in college, I had a friend who spent more than $500 on a laser pointer powerful enough to reach the moon (and of course, devastate your vision). Combined with his penchant for downing cheap vodka, his fascination with this dangerous gadget was alarming: On the upside, though, he spent everything he had on the actual device and never amassed the money to buy a battery capable of actually powering the thing (I credit his poor financial decision-making for still having two working eyeballs today).

I often wondered who and what made it possible for my alcoholic buddy to wield such a dangerous tool. They’ve been around in one form or another for a while, of course — the invention of lasers writ large can be traced all the way back to 1900, which was when famed German physicist Max Planck published a paper surmising that energy is made of individual units, which he called quanta. His theory would later inspire Albert Einstein, who became the first person to realize that light is made up of photons in 1905. Using this knowledge, Einstein proposed a theory called stimulated emission, a process by which electrons (previously known as the aforementioned quanta) can be stimulated to emanate light of a particular wavelength. This is the process that would eventually make lasers possible.

Forty years later, Columbia University professor Charles Townes conceptualized a device that would come to be known as a maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) while sitting on a park bench in Washington. Based on Einstein’s stimulated emission theory, the device was able to amplify and even generate electromagnetic waves. A few years later, in 1957, Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould scribbled the acronym LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and described the elements needed for constructing one in his notebook, which would eventually become the focus of a 30-year court battle for the patent rights to the device. 

Around that same time, Townes and his brother-in-law published a paper showing that masers could be made to operate in optical realms, creating luminous lights, and were granted U.S. patent number 2,929,922 for the optical maser, which was officially called a laser at that point. Meanwhile, Gould and his private research company, Technical Research Group, were denied their patent application, launching what would become that super dramatic laser invention dispute I mentioned (Gould would eventually start receiving royalties from his patents in the late 1980s).

In 1960, the first working laser was built at Hughes Research Laboratory using a piece of ruby as a medium, light for an energy source and mirrors to produce a resonator that created a beam. Look, I don’t pretend to understand all of this either — just watch the handy explanatory video below.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that lasers became small enough, and required so little energy, that they finally became cheap enough to be used in consumer electronics — take this funky laser pointer from the early 1980s, for example. The November 1981 edition of Popular Science features a Lasers Unlimited advertisement for an assortment of laser pointing devices, including a ruby laser ray gun, a visible red laser lightgun, multi-color lasers and laser light shows, all of which were selling for less than $15 (equivalent to about $42 today). 

Furthering the excitement surrounding laser pointers and the devices that utilized them, in 1986, Worlds of Wonder released Lazer Tag. Much like every other form of laser gun game today, Lazer Tag included laser pointing toy guns and wearable vests that would acknowledge (i.e., flash and make some noise) when you were shot.

Lazer Tag caused some controversy upon its release: Similar to the baseless accusations around modern gaming, many parents believed that Lazer Tag encouraged gun violence. While there was indeed at least one instance of bloodshed involving the game, it wasn’t on the part of an actual gamer: In 1987, a deputy shot and killed 19-year-old Leonard Falcon while he and three friends were playing Lazer Tag at an elementary school in Southern California, allegedly mistaking the toys for real guns. Some believe the negative publicity associated with the incident resulted in Worlds of Wonder’s dissolution the following year.

Although many commercial pointers remained pretty chunky through the 1980s — just look at this 1987 Aerotech LS2R — in the 1990s, we started seeing more and more of the pen-like laser pointers, such as the Laserex Model LDP-300 Diode Laser Pointer (you can check out a whole assortment of 1990s laser pointers here if you’re feeling nostalgic).

These days, laser pointers serve all kinds of purposes, including in educational and business presentations as eye-catching devices; in construction to help measure distances while working on large-scale projects; and at music festivals to ensure you have the wildest drug-induced experience of your life. In Beijing, ushers at theaters and other venues even use laser pointers to zap patrons on their cellphones during performances, a controversial (but effective) tactic considering the dangers these devices pose to your vision.

Speaking of which, although uncommon, the average laser pointer can indeed wreck your eyes, and stronger laser pointers can absolutely destroy them. A 2016 study documented the cases of four children who experienced serious retinal damage while messing around with laser pointers. Worse yet, the study authors emphasized that treatment options are limited, since fixing laser-related damage to the eyes could require significant forms of surgery. 

The reason laser pointers pose such a threat to our vision is simply because the light they emit is both extremely bright and incredibly concentrated: When focused to a point, the light produced by a one mW laser pointer (which is kinda weak, even for a commercial laser) is brighter than an equivalent area on the surface of the sun, and staring into that for more than a few seconds has the capacity to damage your retina. Again, this is an uncommon occurrence, especially when dealing with lower-powered commercial laser pointers, but pointing laser pointers around anyone’s face is still a bad idea.

Despite these warnings and the potential usefulness of the gadget, by the late 1990s, the laser pointer was mostly synonymous with “annoying asshole who thinks he’s funny,” with pranksters shining them at everything from movie theater screens, to New England quarterback Tom Brady, to airplane and helicopter pilots soaring through the skies. Due to this latter tendency, as of 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration had documented at least 35 incidents where pilots required medical attention after some idiot shone lasers into their eyes, and that same year, 3,960 laser strikes against aircraft were reported.

By 1998 — the same year sensational rock band Kiss momentarily suspended a show to scold some dude who was beaming a laser pointer on stage throughout their performance — aggravating laser-pointer dudes were so prevalent that Seinfeld dedicated an entire George Costanza episode arc to them. George summed up a nation’s annoyance when he was haunted by a man equipped with a red laser pointer all throughout “The Puerto Rican Day”:

These annoying and sometimes dangerous incidents seem mostly to be the result of boredom and/or curiosity, as these comments from laser striker Jason Stouder, who was arrested for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter in 2011, make clear:

“It started off admiring the laser and shining it and seeing how far it goes and what it hit. The helicopter flew by, and I made the decision to see if it would reach the helicopter. Obviously it did. But, in viewing the video, I had no idea it illuminated the whole cockpit and blinded everybody inside.”

With some direction from the helicopter pilots, it only took a few minutes for officers to find and arrest Stouder. In fact, in most cases where laser strikers are caught, police helicopters seem to have easily scouted out their position from above. And shining a laser pointer at an aircraft can get you in big trouble: In 2012, 19-year-old Adam Gardenhire received 30 months in federal prison for distracting police pilots with a laser pointer, while 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez was handed a whopping 14 years for the same crime, using a device 13 times more potent than the norm. 

Curiously, these powerful commercial laser pointers (like the almost-literal lightsaber my belligerent friend bought) are technically legal to own in the U.S., even though pointing one at an aircraft has been deemed a criminal act. Promoting these high-powered lasers as “pointers” is also illegal, but you can still actually purchase lasers that, at least according to the video below, are capable of burning human flesh, for the low price of $199 (some other countries, like Switzerland, have enacted outright bans on these strong pointers due to their capacity to wreck eyeballs).

Perhaps in light of some of those hefty prison sentences, though, American laser pointer companies seem to have slowed their production in the last few years. “Since 2015, we’ve mostly stopped selling hand-held lasers, and now we’re focused on portable laser light shows, as well as flashlights,” an anonymous Wicked Lasers press person tells me. “The market has been flooded with cheaper high-powered Chinese pointers that are still widely available on eBay.” 

They add that laser pointers in general are “probably more of a high-volume, low-priced, Chinese commodity now.” It’s possible that American companies are shying away from high-powered pointers because the FDA seems to be working on regulating these devices, but wherever they come from, people continue to find all kinds of uses for them, ranging from entertaining their pet cats (the darting movement laser pointers make apparently stimulates the feline predatory response) to momentarily blinding police forces and obscuring security cameras during the recent protests in Hong Kong.

As for the future, it’s likely that although these high-powered pointers will become more and more powerful, they’ll become less and less accessible to the general public, which, let’s be honest, is probably for the best. Remember, laser pointers are good fun, but they also have the capacity to be incredibly dangerous — something that was ingrained in me when my college buddy started waving his about after chugging an entire Solo cup of straight vodka.