The final decades of the twentieth century saw advances in optical technologies that tremendously expanded the human view of the universe from the realm of the atom to ancient and distant stellar nurseries. The human reach also expanded as twelve men left their footprints on the moon and space probes were sent out to explore deep space. A photo of Earth, taken by Apollo 8 astronauts, gave people the first long-distance look at their home world. Optical technologies also played a role in revolutionizing how people communicated and entertained themselves, particularly with the introduction and proliferation of the personal computer.
A variety of lasers were developed during this time, differing in wavelength, size, and efficiency. Some were put to use as research tools for scientists and technologists in applications such as light radar (LIDAR), interferometry, and holography. Practical applications for lasers developed for a broad spectrum of uses from cutting and welding to surgery and communications. A number of new devices based on laser technology included laser printers, compact disc players, CD-ROMs, bar code scanners, and the ubiquitous laser pointer.
Lasers also showed promise as a communications tool. The light frequency of the laser is so high, that the intensity can be rapidly fluctuated to encode complex signals. Theoretically, one laser beam could carry as much information as is contained in thousands of radio channels. Since laser light can be blocked by rain, fog, or snow, the atmosphere is not a reliable medium for laser communications.
However, high-quality optical fiber provided an ideal medium for transmitting laser signals. Fiber optics, another emerging technology, had been put to good use as a surgical tool during the 1960s, but those fibers weren't good enough to use as a communications medium. In 1970, three researchers at Corning Glass developed the first high-quality optical fiber for use in communications. Coupled with laser signals, it created an efficient new communications medium. By the mid-1980s, fiber optic technology was gaining widespread use for long-distance telephone systems and cable broadcasting.
Electronic computers had been in use since the 1940s, but were too expensive and large (room size) for use outside of scientific institutions and large corporations. That began to change in the 1970s with the evolution of the personal computer (PC). By the early 1980s, the PC industry and PC use began to grow at a phenomenal rate. This fueled the development of digital technologies and by the mid-1990s, the information and communications fields were well on the way to becoming entirely digital. By 1998, the Federal Communications Commission issued a set of specifications that would convert television broadcasts from the traditional analog signals to digital signals. This would bring the long anticipated standards for High Definition Television into use and make it possible to encode more information in the broadcast for other uses.
One unanticipated outcome that consolidated the new twentieth century technologies was the World Wide Web, a global network of computers linked primarily by fiber optic cables but also utilizing existing copper phone lines and satellite communications. From the time of its inception in 1991, to the end of the century, the Web grew from less than a dozen linked computers to tens of millions. Originally an information exchange tool for scientists, by 1999 it was also having a significant impact as a means of economic exchange.
Towards the close of the century, optical microscopy enjoyed a widespread renaissance in the scientific community. In 1975, Robert Hoffman introduced another method for increasing contrast in microscopes, a valuable tool for viewing unstained living tissues and organisms. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1981 made it possible to image individual atoms on the surfaces of materials. In 1986, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for this development, shared with Ernst Ruska, inventor of the electron microscope (1931). Advances in digital imaging and analysis also enabled microscopists to efficiently record and measure images. In late 1999, Intel Corporation and the Mattel toy company teamed up to create a toy microscope that plugged into a computer to display and record images.
The beginning of the 21st century has been marked by an increased interest in solid state lasers and nanotechnology as computers come closer to reaching the physical limits of their current design. In 2001, a group of researchers at Delft University of Technology were the first to demonstrate digital logic circuits made from carbon nanotubes, a significant step on the way to building much smaller and more powerful computers. Another important advance was made in 2002 when researchers successfully stopped and stored light both in a vapor and in a solid. Applications of the process may eventually be used in areas such as quantum computing, ultra-sensitive magnetometry, and acousto-optics.
|1967 - 2003|
||Ralph H. Baer (USA) demonstrates the first video game, the predecessor of "Pong" and many more video games to come.|
||Apollo 8 (USA), the first manned lunar orbital mission, takes a photograph of the Earth. This is the first time humans have ever seen their home planet from afar.|
||Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 mission (USA), is the first human to set foot on the moon.|
||American scientists Paul Davidovits and David Egger publish a paper on confocal laser scanning microscopy, a new technique they have developed that makes it possible to "optically section" thin slices of a three-dimensional specimen, such as an integrated semiconductor circuit, an entire cell, or a piece of tissue. Scientists in Britain and the Netherlands also contribute to the development of this technology.|
||The first computer network and predecessor of the Internet, ARPANET (Advanced Research Project Association NETwork), is established. This allows scientists at four universities to access each other's computers in order to share information.|
||Corning Glass (USA) researchers Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz produce high quality optical fiber for use in telecommunications.|
||E. A. Ash and G. Nicholls, from the University College in London, demonstrate the near-field resolution of a subwavelength aperture scanning microscope operating in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum.|
||Robert Hoffman (USA) invents the Hoffman Modulation Contrast system, which increases visibility and contrast in unstained and living material by detecting optical gradients and converting them into different light intensities.|
||The MITS Altair computer (USA) is introduced as a do-it-yourself kit for electronics hobbyists. To everyone's surprise, it is a smashing success and becomes the prototype for development of the personal computer.|
||General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) establishes the first fiber optic network for phone services, in Long Beach, California.|
||The Apple II is introduced as the first true "personal computer," factory built, inexpensive and easy to learn and use.|
||Vera Rubin (USA) publishes the first of a series of papers providing evidence that there is more matter in the universe than can be accounted for. As much as 90 percent of the matter in the universe may be invisible dark matter. The "missing mass problem" becomes one of the fundamental cosmological issues of modern astrophysics.|
||Philips Electronics N.V. and Sony Corporation co-invent the compact disc, a molded plastic disc containing digital data that is scanned by a laser beam to reproduce sound or other information. In 1982, it is commercially introduced as an audio CD and, within a matter of years, replaces the phonograph disc as the primary medium for recorded music.|
||IBM releases the Personal Computer (PC) to compete with the Apple personal computers, which make up 50 percent of all personal computer sales. The IBM-PCs come with a programming language called BASIC (originally developed for the Altair), and a disk operating system, both obtained from a small, unknown company named Microsoft.|
||Gerd Binnig (Germany) and Heinrich Rohrer (Switzerland) develop the scanning tunneling microscope, providing the first images of individual atoms on the surfaces of materials.|
||The term "Internet" is used for the first time to describe the loose collection of networks that make up the ARPANET.|
||The Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched by the USA in 1972, is the first manmade object to leave the solar system.|
||Apple introduces the Macintosh computer, featuring an easy to use graphical interface and a built-in 9-inch black and white screen.|
||Fiber optic networks for long distance phone service spread across the United States, carrying signals at 400 million bits per second and up.|
||Compact discs are introduced to the personal computer market for use as a distribution medium for programs and data. A CD-ROM (Compact Disc Read-Only Memory) device connected to the computer uses a low-power laser beam to read data that has been encoded in the form of tiny pits on an optical disk. The drive then feeds the data to a computer for processing.|
||The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite is launched by the USA for the purpose of measuring the diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the early universe.|
||The Hubble Space Telescope is the first optical observatory to be placed into Earth orbit. However, because of manufacturing flaws, Hubble doesn't become fully functional until 1993 after it is repaired by astronauts.|
||The World Wide Web is born. After two years of developing his concept for the Web, Tim Berners-Lee (England) establishes the first web server at a physics research laboratory (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.|
||Michael Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland) use sophisticated telescopes and computers to make the first discovery of an extrasolar planet. Estimated to be about the size of Jupiter, the proposed planet orbits the star 51 Pegasi, about 42 light-years from the Sun.|
||The Mars Pathfinder mission is the first to utilize a remote controlled vehicle (Sojourner) on another planet's surface. The research robot takes photographs and performs experiments in real-time as directed from Earth.|
||The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues its specifications for the conversion of television signals from analog to digital, beginning in 1999 and culminating in 2006 with the abolition of all analog TV broadcasts.|
||The Mattel toy company and computer chip manufacturer Intel team up to produce the Intel Play QX3 Computer Microscope, an inexpensive computerized toy microscope.|
||Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, demonstrating a technique that significantly improves the possibility of building a practical quantum computer, experimentally achieve the first entanglement of four particles.|
||Cees Decker and a research team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands demonstrated the first digital logic circuits made from carbon nanotubes, an important step in the fast rising field of nanotechnology.|
||Researchers at Harvard University stop and store light in a vapor sample. Several months later, in experiments carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Hanscom, Massachusetts, the feat is accomplished in a solid material.|
||The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory fully accounts for neutrinos from the sun (first detected in the 1960s), thus solving what had come to be commonly known as the "solar neutrino problem.||
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