Throwback Thursday: Developing The Handheld Laser Pointer

You have used them in presentations. You may reflect with a small sense of fondness, when you remember when they, rather than smartphone screens, were the biggest distraction in a movie theater. Since the 1980’s, the laser pointer has served as a productivity tool, prankster’s weapon-of-choice, and, most importantly, as a way to put laser technology into the hands of millions.

For clarification, this Throwback Thursday spotlight will focus only on the red and red orange handheld laser pointers used for everyday applications.

When the first consumer laser pointers were developed 30 or so years ago, they were bulky and would run you somewhere over the hundred dollar mark. Over time, simpler, more affordable materials were used. In doing so, the laser pointers evolved into the $5 versions we know today.

The laser pointer, regardless of size, has a similar structure across models. The device consists of a case, usually made of acrylic, plastic, or lightweight metal. Inside the case is a laser diode, an optic lens, a laser diode, and a circuit board. A red laser diode is typically assembled in a semiconductor lab, with a base material used as the substrate. A small piece of the substrate is used as the base, where conductive and semi-conductive materials are laid upon it. When all materials are layered, the piece is cut into smaller pieces and tested. If the laser diodes prove functional, they are encased in plastic and attached to a circuit board.

A switch is attached to the same circuit board, along with the necessary circuitry to turn the device on and off, as well as power it through use. A single lens is placed into the device, which focuses and limits the beam casts from the diode.The smallest handheld laser pointers are powered by watch batteries, and will cast a low powered beam of light. Slightly larger versions, powered by AA and AAA batteries, will generate incrementally more power, casting a stronger light, for a longer period of time. In battery powered laser pointers, a metal spring is attached inside the end of the enclosure. Like other battery powered devices, the spring comes in contact with the battery and helps to draw in electricity.

The exact origin of the laser pointer is closely intertwined with the history of the laser, itself. At the time of writing, no single individual is credited with the invention of the laser pointer. However, its rise and popularity in the late 20th century is symbolic of the laser’s shift from exclusively technical operation, into a consumer product.

These days, laser pointers are banned in a large number of places. Class III laser pointers are the only ones legally available to the general public, due to their low power. While the average laser pointer operator is responsible in their operation of the device, those who used the devices for nefarious purposes, such as aiming the beam directly into another’s eye, made way for strict legislation of handheld laser pointers. Even with the restrictions, laser pointers still pose a risk to pilots, who can be temporary blinded by eye contact with a laser pointer.

Despite these laws and restrictions, the widespread adoption of the  laser pointer serves as a reminder of how far laser technology has come, in a relatively short time. Although the technology is often used for troublesome or dangerous pranks, the laser pointer was, and will continue to be, used for its intended purposes worldwide.


About the Author
Steven Glover is a proud member of the LIA staff. When he is not at work he is actively involved in several charitable efforts.
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