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I doubt that the word usage preceded the invention of a functioning laser but I think that is possible since the principle of the laser was understood years before one was created.

"Ray guns" I recall seeing in old (1930s) Flash Gordon episodes. "Death rays" were seriously discussed in the 1930s and I believe resulted in radar. I know that of course War of the Worlds had heat rays and Archimedes it appears could have created one long ago (I wonder why if it really worked why people gave up -- maybe you need to live near the equator for such a weapon to work well enough). So any mention of "death" or "heat" rays does not count -- I am looking for "laser" or possibly "maser". What would be really exciting is an old story that discussed the principle upon which lasers and masers are based if that story predates their creation and even more exciting would be if the science fiction story actually is why we use the word laser. I have to say, it is one of the best-sounding acronyms -- the word somehow really seems to suggest what lasers actually are but of course the device and word already existed by the time I learned to speak and so that affects my perception of how apt it sounds.

NOTE: It seems to me that, along with manned spaceflight and the a-bomb, the laser is one of the first "science fiction" technologies that became real.

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  • See sfdictionary.com/view/1546/laser-pistol and related entries. Also see laserfest.org/lasers/history/early.cfm. Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 17:29
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    Considering the term "laser" was only coined in 1959, and it's all over the literature by the mid-1960s, I think you're looking in a very narrow range. (FWIW, the first functioning laser was 1960, so it's possible that the literature lagged.)
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 17:34
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    In light of @DavidW comment it may be notable that Star Trek The Cage had "laser" guns when written in 1964. His 1962 Shield answer being correct in the sense that a maser is technically a laser and no other answers at the time I'm writing this. There is still opportunity for a story that actually uses the word "laser" and not ray or maser. Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 4:33
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    @user14111 I found that one too, and more factual notes in F&SF and Fantastic, both August 1962. The earliest usage of "laser" in a SF story I've found so far is a "laser drilling head" used on the Moon in "Stay Off the Moon!" by Raymond F. Jones, Amazing Stories, December 1962.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 4:50
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    Re, "Archimedes...why people gave up" It was hugely impractical, mostly because of laws of optics. You have to start with a south-facing hillside that overlooks the target. And, the area of that hillside that you must cover with mirrors grows as the square of the distance to the target. Plus, back in Archimedes' day, each of those mirrors would have to be crew-served, and you'd need some communication means so that they all know which target to illuminate and when. Plus, in his day, the "mirrors" would have been of relatively low quality. And finally, The whole thing only works on sunny days. Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 15:02

4 Answers 4

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Just a slightly earlier than any of the references to "laser {x}" listed in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction is this description of a maser weapon, from Poul Anderson's novel Shield, the first part serialized in Fantastic, June 1962:

"A maser gun. It amplifies radiation by stimulating atoms to re-emit in a highly collimated beam. Call it a heat ray."

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    How did you find that?
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 19:18
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    @Spencer Basically by running text searches against the Pulp Magazine Archive.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 19:21
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    It makes sense that "maser" might have appeared before "laser," since functional physical masers (microwave range) predate lasers (visible light).
    – Buzz
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 19:30
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    @Buzz In fact lasers were initially called "optical masers" until the acronym "laser" was coined in 1959. The editorial in the October 1960 issue of Fantastic actually uses the term: "This tight beam has also been one of the sf stereotypes most pooh-poohed by the purists. Therefore it gives us pleasure to report that just such a beam has now been produced (so far only experimentally) by scientists. Their device is called an optical maser (“Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”)."
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 19:41
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    And all the other variants followed shortly after. Star Trek's "phaser" would appear in 1963, the first "Taser" device was invented in 1969. (Obviously different technology, but the name at least was inspired by "laser".) "Spaser" is a relatively recent real-life invention, but "Spazer" in fiction was already floating around in the 60's and 70's... Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 19:51
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I'm not sure whether this qualifies as any earlier than the other reference, but I found a fairly accurate description of a maser being used as a communications device in Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar published in 1962:

He decided, for the balance of the afternoon, to use one of the smaller labs and try some further communications experimenting with his zircon-arc powered ruby maser.

"Want to watch?" he invited Bud.

"Sure. I haven't seen this gadget of yours yet."

The boys entered the lab, and Bud took a close look at his friend's device.

"Hmm, looks like a fancy searchlight-set on an oversized pistol. Okay, Prof. Give me a breakdown of what's what."

Tom grinned and pointed to the larger end of the cone-shaped metal contrivance's housing. "Inside this part is a powering light reflector, flash lamp, and condenser for the powering light." Tom's finger moved to the narrowed "neck" of the device. "In here is the ruby rod itself."

snip...

The brief message Tom flashed took only a couple of seconds. There was a few minutes' wait. Finally, over the receiver, came the response: "Got your message, skipper. Not very clear, but I'd say that maser could really save the day, if necessary. Over."

"Just testing, this time," Tom signaled back. "I'll be in touch with you."

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    A ruby "maser" emits light in the visible range, so it's actually a laser. Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 22:44
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I remember a science fiction story in a magazine from the early 1960s in which someone is being questioned by a congressional committee and reveals that he has found a way to make a handheld powerful laser weapon at home using ordinary tools and that he has already publicized the method and there is nothing they can do to stop everyone from having a powerful laser weapon.

And that might be an early example of lasers in fiction. But I don't remember the author, title, or magazine title.

Except that I have a vague sense that possibly the title was "Sales of a Death Man". And the problem with that is I find that title "Sales of a Death Man" attributed to David Gerrold a lot in the internet, even though he wasn't published in the early 60s and that title isn't listed his page in the ISFDB. https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?106

As for lasers in movies and tv, the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964) was filmed between 20 January 1964 and 21 July 1964.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058150/locations/?ref_=ttrel_sa_4

And it was released in the UK 17 September 1964 and in the USA 21 December 1964.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058150/releaseinfo/?ref_=tt_ov_rdat

While Star Trek "The Cage" was filmed 27 November to 18 December 1964.

https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/The_Cage_(episode)#Production_timeline

According to Wikipedia the laser Bond is threatened with is an industrial laser, so I wonder if industrial lasers were already used by 1964.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldfinger_(film)

I believe that the Robinsons used laser pistols and rifles in Lost in Space which was first broadcast on 15 September 1965.

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First aired on September 18, 1964, the first episode of the animated TV series Jonny Quest, “The Mystery of the Lizard Men” presents Dr. Benton Quest discovering a secret laser base hidden aboard an 18th-century shipwreck.

During a demonstrative experiment, Dr. Quest describes laser as an atomic radiation focused on a narrow beam of light.

Still image from Jonny Quest “The Mystery of the Lizard Men

Jonny Quest “The Mystery of the Lizard Men IMDB

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    i may have seen this episode when it first came aired. i remember discussing jonny quest with other little kids.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 7:16

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