The AILU AWARD for 1998
Dr Jim Wright MBE
The AILU 1998 award for outstanding contributions to the industrial use of lasers in the UK was presented to Dr Jim Wright MBE, who started one of the most successful Nd: YAG laser companies in the world and pioneered many industrial applications arising from those machines. Professor Bill Steen, AILU President, made the presentation at the members' meeting at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 20 October 1998. The award, a trophy sponsored by British Aerospace, was designed and built by Annie Hall, a London silversmith. The trophy is a pen with a Nd: YAG rod for a body, a gold nib and silver grip, mounted on a stand with a decorative laser engraved back plate made by Anne-Marie Carey of Liverpool University
Presenting the award, Professor Steen reviewed Jim’s extensive background in the laser business. ‘Jim Wright is one of the leading pioneers of laser technology in the UK. His link with lasers began soon after the laser had been invented. At that time he was completing his PhD at Nottingham University in a group working on masers, the forerunner of lasers. On leaving the University in 1962 he was awarded a Civil Service research fellowship to work on lasers at the Signals Research and Development Establishment (SRDE) in Christchurch. Here he developed the first frequency multiplied lasers in the UK, which included the first Q-switching of Nd:glass lasers. Realising that his interests lay more with developing the technology and its applications than the pure research, he left the security of the Civil Service to join AEI Research Laboratories, a brave move. Whilst there he developed the first Nd:YAG lasers for military guidance applications. It was here that he met Ron Burbeck who ran the electronics group that provided the power source for Jim’s YAG laser. In 1968, when GEC bought AEI and wanted to move the laser work to Wembley, Jim, Ron and several colleagues decided against the move and formed a branch of Laser Associates to manufacture the first commercial YAG lasers in the UK. However, concerns about the management at Laser Associates led Jim and Ron to resign and form JK Lasers Ltd at the beginning of 1972. Initially they made a high powered stroboscope, using a laser style water cooled flashtube and its associated power supply. Jim says this was because they couldn’t afford laser rods. However, they soon developed and marketed their System 2000 range of pulsed lasers using ruby, YAG and glass laser rods.’
‘Jim and Ron Burbeck built up their business in scientific and industrial lasers slowly and with much personal sacrifice. It is the story of many a successful business that success is related to energy and enthusiasm. By 1975 there were 11 people on the payroll producing one laser per month, by July 1982 there were 100 when the company merged with Lumonics of Canada to form one of the largest laser companies in the world. Within Lumonics Jim championed the development of the industrial laser business until his resignation from the company in 1988. He was awarded the MBE for his services to laser technology in the same year.’ Jim Wright is a designer and physicist, a man of outstanding intellect and leadership. He was also a greatly loved leader and few staff left his company. Although now retired, many of his protégés from JK Lasers continue to exert a major influence on the development of the industrial laser activity in the UK."’
In accepting the award Jim commented that the excellent review by Clive Ireland on the history of the development of YAG lasers, which had preceded the presentation, had evoked many memories from his career. In particular he noted that the first lasers he worked on were made with what was available and not with laser components as we know them today. Ruby laser rods were cut from crystals grown to produce watch bearings; mirrors were silver coatings on the ends of the rod; flashtubes were made by the local glass blower and the power supply was borrowed from the photographic studio. Such lasers could only be fired once every few minutes and frequently it was either the mirror, flashtube or power supply that went off rather than the laser! It was the frustration of trying to use such lasers for scientific measurements at SRDE, that made Jim realise that lasers would never be really useful unless they could be made to operate at higher repetition rates and with high reliability. This was the principle which had driven most of Jim’s subsequent technical developments, culminating with the industrial products at JK Lasers.
The 1998 AILU Award
Jim also pointed out that he had been fortunate in many respects throughout his career. First of all he seemed to have benefited from being in the right place at the right time both with regard to the early development of lasers in the UK and the subsequent development of a commercial market. An apposite example he quoted was that JK Lasers had been fortunate to lose the major contract to supply lasers for Vulcan, the high energy laser facility at the Rutherford Laboratory. Although disappointed at the time, it had forced JK Lasers to pursue Nd:YAG lasers for industry rather than research, which proved to be a good move.
A Q-switched Nd:YAG Oscillator-Amplifier with two doublers in heated ovens, and two wavelength separators, producing a wavelength of 263nm. (circa 1978)
Secondly he wanted to acknowledge the tremendous support he had received from others. In particular Ron Burbeck had, as the co-founder of JK Lasers, shared the principles and determination to succeed on which the company was based. During the development phase they had been supported by the work of Roy Noon and Jim Higgins in the boardroom and, of course, all the employees who had given both practical and emotional support. Jim said "The continued growth and success of the business since I left is clear testament to the part they played and are still playing."
Probably first and biggest forward leap was
the introduction of the ceramic pumping chamber (Circa 1973)
He further acknowledged the part that customers had played and in particular noted the courage of their first customers who placed orders for expensive equipment from two guys working in a shed. Finally Jim wanted to thank his wife, Tina, who was not at the presentation (‘not one for the limelight’) for her tremendous support throughout his career.
In closing he said "Thanks again for this award. It really does mean more than I can say."