George Porter's laser

Developed in 1964, Porter’s first ruby laser was used to speed up chemical reactions by short bursts of energy.

  • George Porter's laser
    Credit: Paul Wilkinson
  • Date

  • Place made

    United States of America

  • Alternative name

    Ruby Laser
  • People

  • Materials

    Metal, plastic, synthetic ruby

  • Measurements

    H: 329mm, W: 597mm, D: 200mm   

  • Key words

    Flash photolysis, laser, ruby laser, George Porter, chemistry, chemical reactions


A laser (an acronym from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) is a device which emits intense beam of coherent monochromatic light. The first operational laser, with a core of synthetic ruby, was demonstrated in California in 1960 and within a few years the technology had developed to create lasers that could produce bursts of light which could be extremely fast and controlled very accurately.

This early ruby laser was one of the first to come into the country; it was purchased by George Porter, Director of the Ri to investigate very fast chemical reactions.

In the 1950s Porter had developed a technique called Flash Photolysis. This used a strong flash of light to excite the molecules in a known quantity of a substance and then further flashes to record how long it took the all excited molecules to return to their baseline state by looking at the different proportions in the sample over time.

Porter wanted to study faster reactions but he had a problem: he was using tubes similar to those found in camera flashes which gave flashes that were too long to capture very fast reactions. The invention of the Ruby Laser seemed to solve this problem but buying such a costly piece of apparatus from America was a problem in itself. Eventually Porter was able to secure the dollars necessary and purchase the laser to continue his research. With it he was able to capture reactions lasting only a nanosecond. By the 1970s his researchers in the DFRL were using more sophisticated lasers and were working on reactions lasting picoseconds, 10-12 of a second.

In 1967 Porter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his initial research, along with his supervisor R.W. Norrish and Manfred Eigen.

Where can I view this?

This object is on display in the lower ground floor of the Royal Institution in the Faraday Museum.

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