Cyril Hilsum: headlines for the semiconductor laser

Cyril Hilsum discusses the misleading media reporting of the semiconductor laser.

Listen to the full interview track and all other tracks from this interview on British Library Sounds

And in fact we showed the laser at the physics exhibition which was annual and we showed people this. And there was a slight furore and I got into a minor trouble over it because I was cornered by two reporters, they obviously were used to working together and one of them would ask you the questions very rapidly and devolve from the questions, while the other one took notes and then they would change roles in doing this. And they wanted to know really, why was this being done in a defence laboratory; what was this intended for? Now you have to remember that this device was emitting infrared radiation, it was gallium arsenide, it came out from a Dewar but nobody would have been impressed with that at an exhibition ‘cause they couldn’t see it. So we naturally had an image converter which converted the radiation from the laser into light that you could see and the phosphor we were using gave out green light, so you could see the pattern coming out from the laser and indeed the pattern was quite interesting. Anyway when I got back home and went into the laboratory the next day, the superintendent, Robert Sutton, asked to see me and more or less said, ‘You’re responsible for these headlines in the paper,’ and I said, ‘What headlines?’ and he showed me: ‘Your house will be lit this way’ and he said, ‘That’s really stupid having your house lit,’ I said, ‘Yes, particularly since it’s infrared radiation which you can’t see,’ he said, ‘Well why didn’t you make that clear?’ I said, ‘I had no alternative,’ I said, ‘would you rather have had us using the laser to communicated with our nuclear submarines underwater?’ He said, ‘That’s just as ridiculous,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but that was the choice, either we were doing it because our laboratory wanted to communicate with our submarines underwater, or else we wanted to light our houses with this radiation, that was the choice and I chose that one,’ he said, ‘Alright, I expect that one’s the least harmful.’ And indeed I then started getting telegrams, in those days we had telegrams from the people who supplied our gallium, ‘Understand you have new application for gallium arsenide, should we increase our production?’ and I telegrammed back saying, ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the press.’

  • Interviewee Cyril Hilsum
  • Duration 00:03:09
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 3/22/2012
  • Shelfmark C1379/69

Related Audio Clips

The following clips are short extracts from an in-depth interview.
To listen to the full interview visit

Related disciplines