At one time, lasers were synonymous with menacing weapons used by the likes of Goldfinger against James Bond. Now they are found in compact disc players and telephone equipment.
Lasers -- actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation -- have grown up and are rapidly becoming a vital part of communications, medical treatment and industrial production. And the promoters of lasers and optoelectronics say this is just the beginning.
Thousands of lasers and related equipment are displayed this week as part of the 13th annual Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), being held at the Baltimore Convention Center in conjunction with the Quantum Electronics and Laser Science Conference (QELS).
Convention sponsors said they expect more than 7,000 people to attend seminars and to peruse exhibits set up by 400 companies. The exhibits are open to the public for free from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. tomorrow. However, there are fees for the seminars.
But while the public is welcome to attend, it would help to have a degree in physics, engineering or medicine, said Alastair M. Glass, co-chairman of the CLEO conference. "This exhibition is not aimed at the layman," he said.
The exhibitors include such well-known companies as Eastman Kodak Co. and Hewlett-Packard. Co. But most of the firms are less well known, with such exotic names as Quantuum Technology Inc., LiCONiX and Lambda Physik.
One of the more promising areas for lasers is in communications, where fiber optic technology is expected to bring interactive video into U.S. homes in the next 10 to 15 years.
"That is going to revolutionize our lives," Mr. Glass said.
The fiber optic cables -- which carry laser-generated messages -- will be able to carry a vast amount of entertainment and information into the home. And it will not be a one-way road. Commonplace business transactions -- like going to the bank -- will be conducted over the system, and people will be able to choose from a variety of information sources.
The construction of these new "superhighways" of information is a priority for the Clinton administration, which is trying to wean companies from defense work to more commercial pursuits.
One company that is making the transition is Brimrose Corp. of America, a Baltimore County company that makes laser equipment and other optoelectronic devices. The company has been involved in the U.S. Department of Defense's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "star wars."
But about five years ago, the company decided to branch out into more commercial areas, according to President Ronald G. Rosemeier.
Now, the company sells equipment used in medicine, space probes and laser light shows. Brimrose also makes equipment that can determine the chemical composition of a product by analyzing the light that reflects off it. "We can tell the difference between beer, wine and gin," he said.