A brief history of photonics

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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.



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