Vintage Laser Archive – An Astonishing National Treasure You’ll Ever See

Vintage Laser Archive – An Astonishing National Treasure You’ll Ever See

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Vintage Laser Archive – An Astonishing National Treasure You’ll Ever See

With Robert Hess

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Vintage Laser Archive – An Astonishing National Treasure You’ll Ever See

With Robert Hess

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Vintage Laser Archive – An Astonishing National Treasure You’ll Ever See

Tim Bennett: A Vintage Laser Archive sounds like a very special mystical place to be in the world of lasers…

…and in a moment I’m going to introduce you to a very, very special man with a very, very special collection of lasers and if you love laser and laser history and you’re one of those people who says “I like water chillers, 168’s 171’s and I-400’s,” then this video is just for you today, because Robert Hess, my special guest, is going to blow your mind with what he’s got.

So welcome to ArgonTV, this is Tim Bennett, I’m your host and I’m very happy to introduce to you a gentleman, that I was introduced to recently Mr Robert Hess…

Robert it is great to have you here on ArgonTV, thank you for joining us, how are you today?

Robert Hess: Very good Thank you… please call me Bob, Tim

Tim Bennett: Okay Bob it is… Okay!

Well Bob and I were very recently introduced by a mutual friend of ours.

A big shout out to Emory Parker.

Thank you Emory for introducing and putting this all together and I’m very excited because Emory sent me over some videos of what Bob has and it literally blew my mind.

I have never seen a collection quite like this.

Before we get into the collection, maybe Bob you could just give a little background into yourself.

How you got into lasers, what inspired you and those kind of things…

Robert Hess: Well I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and one day I saw an ad in the newspaper for a holography exhibit that was in ’79.

Previously I had seen a laser light show at Triton College outside of Chicago and I was always interested in the idea of lasers, but I really didn’t know much about them and so I went and saw the holograms, an exhibit put on by a guy named Britain Zabka at Joliet Junior College and and I decided right then, that’s what I want to do, make holograms and work with lasers, because that was a big part of it.

I asked him where to go to learn about that he told me about Vincennes University in Southern Indiana.

Vincennes Indiana two-year program Laser Electro Optics Technology… was started by the people from Waco Texas in the ’70s and they trained laser technicians and you got a little bit of everything, because they didn’t know where you’re going to go after that, some glass blowing, some holography, vacuum coating, optical fabrication, robotics, early computers, so I was there in 1980-ish ’81.

Left there, moved to Silicon Valley, got a job with Spectra Physics, as a plasma tube technician, because you got to have a job, and that was always going to be my backup, this work with lasers, in case the whole life as a holographer didn’t pan out and so I worked with Spectra Physics for a few years building CO2 lasers, worked with Liconics for a short time and was a starving artist holographer for 15 years, but then, well it, it gets after that, I decided to get a job essentially.

I worked with a company called Digilens, well initially Retinal Displays, and then Digilens for about 15 years, looking for an application for electrically switchable hologram optical elements, but all along, I was, it was just playing with laser light on the table, that I love doing.

It’s great if you’re a holographer, you get to use all kinds of lasers, low power high, power visible mostly, so that’s exciting and so I always enjoyed my career from that point of view.

It’s just playing with lasers, but I was a plasma tube guy and I always liked antiques, so I’ve always grabbed an old one, I’ve always kept my old lasers and that was sort of the start of my collecting.

It’s just hanging on to old ones!

Tim Bennett: Wow!

Robert Hess: That’s where we’re at.

Tim Bennett: Yeah Wow!

I mean that’s really an amazing history and I had to smile, because you know, you said you didn’t know what you want to do with your life.

I was also in that position and then one day I saw a laser and I went “I know what I want to do in my life!”

Yeah, so great but what an exciting time that must have been in the… I mean I wasn’t involved in lasers in the ’70’s, I was still at school, but what an exciting time to be around in that technology in those days.

It was so fast changing and and just you know experimental.

I wish I could have seen a lot more of that.

Well, so yeah, that’s absolutely amazing and now as you can see behind me, I’ve got this amazing array of lasers and equipment and what we’re actually here to talk about is Bob’s Vintage Laser Archive.

So when did this all start and why did it all start?

Robert Hess: Well it actually started in the early ’80’s when I first came across a an old laser, a dumpster diver back then, who used to dig into dumpsters from Spectra Physics and Coherent and then, I came to my house on his rounds and because, I was in Palo Alto at the time, and and he had an old one and it said Spectra Physics Perkin Elmer 111 and I knew Spectra Physics came from another company, but I wasn’t… I was young, I wasn’t into the history and the number was intriguing to me.

I thought, “that must be old, I’m gonna get it from him.”

So I did and I moved that laser around for 20 years, ’80, ’90, yeah 20 years or so and until about 2006.

And I was looking for another laser online and I came across another old one.

It was a Hughes Model 200, pulse ruby laser from 1962 and the guy was very knowledgeable about it and it was still operational and he wanted a lot of money for it and I don’t want to say how much, but it was a lot of money.

It was like new laser price money and I thought, “this belongs in a museum, but they’re not probably looking for old lasers, so I’ll buy it, play with it for a while and then find the museum to sell it to or whatever.”

And so I got it and in the process of researching where it was, because I wanted to know where was in the history of lasers and I didn’t know what laser model was used to make the first hologram and I never knew that and I never knew and I was always curious about the period between the invention of the first laser in 1960 and the appearance of holography in like ’64, ’65, so what was happening there, so I looked into that.

Turns out it was a very old laser and I’ve only found a few that are older, so I you know, I was lucky on that and I believe, it’s the oldest working commercial laser that that exists.

Ruby lasers can be made to work pretty easily, but it’s intact and so that started me up and in the process of my research, I found I ran into other old lasers that I had never been looking for, but they were much less expensive, in the couple of hundred dollar range.

In a few cases, the person would say “oh just take it from me you know,” and so I started collecting them and that was shortly before 2010, which is going to be the 50th anniversary of the laser and so I thought, “well it’s better to have a small collection of them, than a single one” and I’ll put the small collection together and show it at The West Coast Laser Industry Show Exhibits, Photonics West and CLEO‘s and then another SPIE Conference in San Diego every year, and that’s what I did.

So by the time that conference, those conferences and it was part of a laser fest supported by OSA and SPIE and everybody and I had about 35 lasers in the exhibit and another collector Richard Stone from Lockheed, that’s another interesting story, how he got his collection, but he had a bunch, about 30 of them there and there was about 30 from other people.

It was a nice big display of vintage lasers and it went over very well at the conferences and then I brought them to Flandrau Science Center in Tucson as an exhibit, because they were just then opening their Planetarium shows again, so it ran for about a year there I think, six months or a year, but ever since then and I was living in San Jose, at the time and in a very small house and so I was limited to small lasers and how many I could physically fit, because I don’t want to stash them away in boxes, I want to see them.

I want them out on the shelf and… but then, I lost my job, got another job offer right away in Phoenix, took it, moved to Phoenix, got a much bigger house and collected a bunch of lasers that I had my eye on along the way, as part of the move.

Stopped at Cambridge Lasers in Fremont and Brian Bohan was very generous in donating a number of big old lasers… an old Spectra Physics Model 170.

You know everybody’s got a 171, but a 170 is… was unique, and some old Lexel stuff and Bob Arkin at Holo-Spectra and Van Nuys, he’s been collecting lasers since the ’70s and working on them and he had a whole bunch of them I had my eye on for years and picked those up and so yeah, by the time I hit Phoenix I had a much bigger collection and it’s only grown since then.

Tim Bennett: Yes and from the videos that I saw, that Emory sent me, it it looks like it’s completely taken over your house, you’ve got optical tables, you’ve got lasers, you’ve got holograms.

Do you know exactly how many pieces you actually have now?

Robert Hess: It’s approaching 500 lasers.

Probably 350 are unique, the rest are doubles and triples and things like that, but then there’s an equal number of accessories and components, like power meters or power supplies or plasma tubes, things like that.

I have a set of mirror mounts from Bell Labs from about 1964, they’re the exact same mirror mounts that you see in the pictures of the very first carbon dioxide laser.

Apparently Bell Labs machine shop made a certain design of mirror mount, they just… and all the researchers got them.

These are signed.

Tim Bennett: Well that’s fascinating because I was born in ’63, so that’s really fascinating and tell me about some of the lasers that you’ve got behind you.

Robert Hess: Behind me?

Tim Bennett: Yes.

Robert Hess: Well, those are some of the oldest ones.

It’d probably be easier if I turned around and stood up and pointed at them.

Would that be okay?

Tim Bennett: Yeah Yeah absolutely!

Robert Hess: Oh okay!

Well this is the oldest one.

It’s a proof of concept prototype from Raytheon, for the first commercial laser model, this is the one seen in this picture of the woman’s hand holding a laser.

I got a story about that one, but that’s the oldest one.

That’s from 1960, it was made like three months after Hughes announced the first one and this is a Pulse Ruby from ’62, from Optics Technology.

This is the Model 200 Hughes, that I spoke about before, that I bought, that started everything off, the power supply is on the bottom corner down here.

This is a Spectra Physics Perkin Elmer Model 110, it’s the first commercial laser with a visible
continuous beam, as soon as helium neon was found to be visible, they made a… that’s the first model for that.

This is Optics Technology Model 170 helium neon from the mid ’60’s.

Nice educational HeNe from the mid ’60s, with a really mod look to it.

This is a Perkin Elmer Model 5200 HeNe, very James Bond looking, very cool.

This one’s from Bell Labs.

Bell Labs didn’t make commercial lasers, but they did some for in-house and for demonstrations and things and for the longest time, I did not have the plasma or the plasma tube in it was broken.

I got that from Sam Goldwasser about Sam stacks and just recently, a few months ago, a gentleman got in touch with me and said “I’ve got some old Bell Labs plasma tubes in my garage for the last 40 years.

Do you want them?”

You know! Oh yeah!

And there’s like one fit into that head.

So it’s got a good home for the rest of its life.

This is a demonstration model of the first helium neon from Bell Labs.

I don’t know what it was made for.

Probably some trade show or something.

It’s a cutaway model that actually works with a neon tube in the middle and a light, flat, flashlight light bulb in the front, in the lens for a collimated beam.

Spectra Physics Model 130, I’d say this is the first laser pointer, because it was the first laser with a DC power supply, first laser with an incorporated power supply, hand head and first laser with a handle on it, you know, it’s also got a switch on the side, which is common with the laser pointers, and there’s a picture of… well there’s a picture of Schawlow and Earl Bell from Spectra Physics using it as a pointer, so I think that qualifies as the first laser pointer and then this one over here is a air-cooled argon laser from RCA, very cool, air-cooled argon laser, very space age, Jetsons looking thing.

Over on this side, is those Bell Labs plasma tubes, I mentioned, a whole bunch of other plasma tubes…

This is a helium neon laser from Bausch and Lomb, that’s got a wooden structure to it.

It’s a wooden…

This is a Liconix helium cadmium laser, an early one, went from like 1973.

This is a demonstration laser from General Telephone, it came in a demonstration kit with holograms
and this still operates.

That’s from like 1968.

I found in taking away old labels off the shipping container, I found the original shipping label from 1968 on it.

Tim Bennett: That’s fascinating…

Robert Hess: Those are the ones I, you know usually keep in the nice cabinet…


Tim Bennett: I mean I wish I could take a tour of your house, but sadly I’m not with you, even though you might think I am, because my background makes it look like i’m in the next room to Bob…

You might think we are together, but we’re actually not.

What have I got going on behind me?

Robert Hess: Well, the… starting on the top left corner, you see a power supply up in the top left corner there, kind of a green looking one… the other corner…

Tim Bennett: Oh this one! Okay Yeah yeah…

I’m the other way around to you yeah!

Robert Hess: Yeah, yeah there’s an old power supply from ’62, pulsed ruby from Optics Technology below that is a dye laser, a co-linear lamp pump dye laser and just in front of that, the blue one on that same shelf, is a Liconix Model 501 helium selenium laser, it’s the only… well, I think RCA came out with a commercial helium selenium laser as well, but neither one of them lasted more than a few years, I don’t think and then there’s a Sylvania GTE, Sylvania a little YAG in front of that little blue one, below that the long gray one right going across the level of where your mouth is, that’s the first helium cadmium commercial laser.

It’s a Spectra Physics Model 185.

I got that from Ed Wesley holographer in Chicago, who got it from Tung Jeong, who is a famous holographer in the Chicago area from Lake Forest.

Let’s see, over your shoulder on that same side, is my optical breadboard, that I… is 4 by 8 foot, that I bought in 1982 to start my holography career.

I bought myself a Newport breadboard, so I could build a cinder block table underneath it, floating on inner tubes.

That way I could move it more portably than a a conventional Newport table and this I’ve carried that with me ever since.

I am still using it.

In the top, the triangular shape laser, the top shelf there, that’s my only laser from Poland.

It’s a helium neon laser made for educational purposes.

It’s got like a plexiglas cover, so with the names of the all the components written in Polish on the cover.

Below that are three Russian lasers.

I have the the largest collection of of Soviet and Russian lasers in the United States, I think.

Probably about 35 or 40 of those.

The orange one in the corner, is a YAG laser.

Above that, is a, well the other two, are helium neon lasers, long ones yeah.

Tim Bennett: Wow what amazing history…

Robert Hess: And the blue one just, on that same side, to the, across from your neck, you see like a blue tube, just here?

Robert Hess: Yeah, yeah right there, right there with a little tag on it, that’s an airborne argon laser from Hughes, from like 19… early ’70’s I think.

Yeah I got that from Casey Stack

Tim Bennett: Oh okay right!

Robert Hess: Locally yeah!

Yeah a very kind a donation from Casey Stack.

Tim Bennett: Wow that’s fantastic.

What a collection and is this something that people can come to your house to visit and see?

You know, is it like a little museum, where they can walk around?

Robert Hess: Well yeah certainly. I mean if somebody was, you know, that saw this and contacted me and wanted to check it out that’s fine.

I’m concerned about inviting the general public in, because there’s an uneven floor.

The floor there, takes steps down and steps up and it’s not designed well for the public.

I’m worried about tripping hazards and things like and it’s not…

They’re set up on shelves, they’re all visible, but there’s no no rhyme or reason to it.

I set them up as I got them and so I you can’t really tell a story.

If somebody comes to visit, it would be nice to be able to to go through a chronological order or here’s a room full of all the ruby lasers or here’s all the Hene’s or here’s all the argons, that sort of thing.

I don’t know how…

I’ll be setting them up mostly chronological when I set them up.

Tim Bennett: And I guess this kind of makes moving difficult for you, yes?

Robert Hess: Well I have.

Well the last time I moved, it was to Phoenix and so it was a joy, because it was… I had more space for more lasers.

Now I don’t know what I would do.

I’m hoping that my next move will involve a whole permanent home for the whole collection.

You know, it would be I think, that they deserve to be in a building right next to the computer history museum in Mountain view.

Lasers are on the same level.

They just haven’t been a consumer item and… well except for laser pointers, but the size of the industry and the importance to the industry, there would not be the computer history museum, unless there was lasers to make all those chips.

So I would like to find a permanent home eventually for the whole collection, times 3… with participation from the big industries, yeah!

Tim Bennett: Yeah, absolutely and when I… in the beginning of this discussion, I said you have something very special, I think you have something very special and unique, with all your collection.

I’ve never seen anything like this.

I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it ever again and that was one of my questions is, what is
your future plan with this?

How do you want to… where do you want to take it?

And what what kind of help would you be looking for or any input from other people?

Robert Hess: Well, I’m a technician, and still a working holographer and I have a small space here in Tempe, Arizona, where I’ve been making hologram optical elements and and I have the space there where I can do a small exhibit and I’m just itching to set them up in a way that tells a story and to find out if there is general interest, that I think that there is.

If there is, I’ll have a good response, I’ll certainly gather some data and so I thought it was time to, you know toshit or get off the pot.”

I don’t know how else to say it…

So I decided to to jump in and do an exhibit and I’ve got a year and a half lead left on the lease and I can extend it easily beyond that, but, so that’s my immediate plan is to just set up an exhibit, open it to the public, see how that goes and explore options beyond that.

If it’s a hit locally, then we’ll see where it goes.

I have, you know, I’ve spoken to people in the past about where they should be (the lasers), and there is great interest in the collection.

It’s a national treasure in my mind.

I feel a responsibility to it.

It went from just, “oh I bought an expensive laser, how am I going to justify that…” to “well I’ll get you know, in for a penny in for a pound, I’ll just dilute my investment, make it easier to sell…” but the idea was always to sell it at the end, but in the process, some really important ones came to me and it’s like, and it beyond selling, it’s a responsibility and it’s a… and “I’m on a mission from God now,” to quote the Blues Brothers and so I have to see it through, so setting them up and see what the, see what the response is, and hopefully put together a plan to approach the powers that be, that can actually see it into a proper laser history museum, which is way beyond me.

I’m a technician I like to gather them, I like to clean them, I like to set them up, I like to photograph them, but when we’re talking laser history, we’re talking big science, big physics, big industry and it’s sort of beyond and it’s a big business to be that kind of museum.

So I need marketing help, I need business help, I need non-profit help, all this… all that stuff. Yeah and I think that that will fall into place if if I just start on the path.

Tim Bennett: Yes and what I think… what I think is interesting….

Robert Hess: Yeah hiding in your house is not going anywhere, you know?

I have to do something to start on that path.

Tim Bennett: Yeah and what I think is interesting is that I’ve only just recently met you and found this collection even though, you’ve been doing it years.

So I am very sure there are literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who also like what you’re doing and never heard of you, so, you know, hopefully through this video, that we can, we can share it out to the community a little bit and people with who… interested parties could contact you and give you the help that you need.

If they wanted to do that, if they want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for people to contact you?

Robert Hess: I suppose the best way is by email and that’s on my website, vintage laser archive…

(Bob’s Email is:

Well, it’s a Google site I started. I got myself a free Google site so I would have a place to put pictures and words, in case something happened to me, and so it’s a poorly made website, everybody says you make your museum virtual, so I need to make a proper website, but all my information is on there.

If you Google Vintage Laser Archive you’ll find me…

Tim Bennett: Yeah and I actually took a look at your website and I will put a link to it in the video description.

So beneath this video you will find a link to Bob’s website and I think the virtual content right now, is really awesome, because you know obviously with Covid and everything, we can’t travel and until such days that we can all travel again internationally, this is going to be a great resource for people.

So I will definitely link to it down beneath the video and until such time that we can all travel and come back to, you know, to actually see you face to face, I think this is a great little treasure trove.

So I know we could talk forever and ever and you know, you could take us on a guiding tour of your house and we’ll spend the next 10 or 12 hours…

Robert Hess: One thing I should mention is, is that I am a holographer and it’s not just the vintage laser archive.

It’s vintage holograms as well, I have the oldest full color hologram from 1966.

I have focused on technical holography, so I can show the development of that as well and a few of the art pieces and because I believe that holography will make a great side dish to the vintage lasers and I also collect old pictures… old prep pictures to decorate.

So the graphics is a big part of it.

So if anybody has graphics or old pictures of lasers in labs that would help out a lot and also if anybody has old lasers out there, you know where to send them.

Tim Bennett: Indeed and you know, Emory sent me some videos of some of your collection and I saw the… some of the holograms that you have and all your optical tables and some of the the illustrations and drawings that you have and pictures and it really is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life, when it comes to anything related to lasers.

So I’m sure a lot of people are going to find this very exciting.

I’m going to be talking to Emory again soon as well, about what he’s doing, but I think what you’ve got there Bob, is something absolutely… you said it’s “a national treasure” and I absolutely totally agree with you.

I think you’ve got something very special, very unique and I think a lot of people are going to, not only want to see it, but I think a lot of people are going to want to support and help you as well. so let’s hope that all happens and that we can make your dream come true.

Robert Hess: I appreciate that.

Tim Bennett: Well Bob, thank you very much for being here, it’s been a great opportunity to see what you’ve got and you know, I’m sure we’ll all come back and visit you again one day and I hope you’ll come back to ArgonTV again one day.

Robert Hess: Absolutely!

Maybe we can talk about the holograms specifically once those are set up and I have a camera to walk around with.

That could be a good opportunity.

Tim Bennett: Yeah I think that’ll be brilliant.

Maybe we could set it up in the coming weeks or something, where you can actually give us a quick walkthrough.

We can do a part two, to this I think it would be very interesting for people to have a quick sneak preview of what they can see.

That’d be great.

Robert Hess: Yeah really appreciate it.

Tim Bennett: So Bob thank you very much for being here.

I’ve been talking to Bob Hess about his incredible vintage laser archive…

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  1. […] If you would like to see examples of lasers, check out out laser archive here with Robert Hess […]

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