Timeline
A brief history of photonics
The foundations of this new technology were laid more than 150 years ago.

The take-away

  • Albert Einstein published pioneering works in which he explained that light energy is carried in quantum packets. He also anticipated the invention of the laser.
  • The future lies in photonic computer chips that can operate at speeds 1,000 times faster than the human brain.

1839

French physicist Edmond Becquerel builds the world’s first photovoltaic cell, thereby demonstrating the photovoltaic effect, i.e. the generation of electric current in a material upon exposure to light.

1865

Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell publishes “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” a mathematical description of light. This theory recognizes light as an electromagnetic wave.

1905

Albert Einstein publishes “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light,” a theory developing a hypothesis that light energy is carried in discrete quantized packets.

1917

More than 40 years before the invention of the laser, Einstein proposes the possibility of the stimulated emission of light, the physical process that will make the device possible.

1954

The first practical photovoltaic cell is publicly demonstrated by inventors Calvin Souther Fuller and Gerald Pearson at Bell Laboratories, US. This technology paves the way for an energy revolution in the 21st century.

1962

Modern photonics is born with the invention of the semiconductor laser diode at General Electric, US. Without the laser there would be no photonics as we know it today.

1966

The first publication on optical fibers for the transmission of signals over long distances. Chinese-born Charles Kao later receives a jointly-awarded Nobel Prize in Physics.

1975

The first digital camera is developed by Steven Sasson at Eastman Kodak, using a charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensor.

1988

The first transatlantic fiber optic cable – the TAT8 – is laid down between the US and Europe.

1989

Tim Berners-Lee hatches the idea for the World Wide Web, and the modern telecommunications revolution begins. This would have been impossible without the prior invention of the laser diode and fiber optics.

2007

Digital cameras and displays become ubiquitous with the launch of the first iPhone, other smartphones and, later, tablets.

2016

Intel debuts silicon photonics modules for lightning-fast connectivity in data centers. The technology brings both electronics and optical components onto a single piece of silicon and helps to keep Moore’s law on track.

2017

Scientists create brain-like photonic computer microchips. The chips’ photonic synapses can operate at speeds a thousand times faster than those of the human brain.

Sources

Jørn Marcher Hvam (DTU)