Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Laser Light Show

Inventor: Professor Elsa Garmire

Elsa Garmire
Garmire’s lasergrams were works of scientific and artistic wonder. Photograph by Patricia Tryforos.

Elsa Garmire, Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering Emerita and former Thayer School dean, holds ten patents in the fields of optics and lasers. But it was her artistic experimentation with lasers that showed millions of people the light.

The light shows that lit up Seventies-era rock concerts were inspired by laser-art created by Garmire a decade earlier when she was a post-doc at Cal Tech. She made photographic images of diffracted laser beams dubbed “lasergrams.” The lasergrams led to a collaboration between Garmire and filmmaker Ivan Dryer. They formed Laserium in 1973—a company that produced light shows for planetariums and concerts using Garmire’s knowledge of lasers and optics. Laserium shows, which are still running today, have been seen by an estimated 20 million people.

Garmire also promoted the idea that people could create their own light shows in a “how-to” television demonstration in 1971. Backyard laser shows didn’t become a “thing” back then because the lasers cost about $12,000 in today’s dollars. Nowadays, with the advent of cheap laser pointers, the only limit to creating your own laser show is imagination. (Besides the lasers, which can cost as little as $10, you need Duco cement and a glass slide to get going.)

Laserium’s light shows were initially accompanied by classical music. The era of the big rock bands, such as Pink Floyd, came later.

Appearing on the public radio program “Science Friday” in 2016, Garmire was asked by host Ira Flatow if she was prepared for how big the laser light show concept would become. “Well, I’ll tell you. I loved it. I loved the classical music,” she answered. “And when they switched to the rock music, that’s when I decided to absent myself.”

Garmire left Laserium and returned to academia and research, arriving at Thayer in 1995. “When I came (to Thayer) I transferred a project from California that investigated the use of lasers to remove graffiti,” Garmire noted in the Dartmouth Presidential Lecture she gave in 2006. “A Nd:YAG laser has enough power to ‘zap’ the paint off highway signs and concrete walls. We built a portable, practical system, but graffiti doesn’t seem to be the problem in New Hampshire that it was in California, so we did not pursue this any further.”

Ironically, her graffiti-removing laser system was her only patent to make money. The invention eventually found a niche market in the aviation industry to remove paint from aircraft.                            

Read Garmire’s Presidential Lecture.

Listen to her “Science Friday” interview.

—Lee Michaelides

Categories: Inventions

Tags: faculty, history

comments powered by Disqus