From Optical Tables to The Terminator’s Sidearm

Let’s begin with the end, which is depicted nicely in the following video:

From Newport…Newport Research Corporation was founded in a garage in 1969 by graduates of the California Institute of Technology, John Matthews and Dennis Terry, who were looking for industrial applications for lasers. Just a few years earlier, in 1960, physicist Theodore Harold Maiman had invented the first operable laser, spurring worldwide interest in the technology. Another Cal Tech graduate, Milton Chang, soon joined the company. At school he had worked with Matthews and Terry, and they had become all too aware of a glaring need for equipment specifically designed for laser work. The optical tables at the school were so unstable that the graduate students had to conduct experiments late at night because during the day the building shook too much. Although not noticeable to most people, the building’s elevators caused vibrations while traveling up and down in the shafts. The third-shift experiments proved fruitful, however, as the young researchers developed some important techniques that would be put to use at Newport. In the meantime, Chang graduated and worked in the research laboratory at Northrop Corp. for two years before Matthews recruited him to head up Newport’s marketing. Given their encounters with troublesome elevators, it was little wonder that Newport’s first commercial product was a steel-clad, honeycomb core table for laser experiments, essentially a stabilized platform that counteracted the vibrations emanating from the floor. In the first year of operation, Newport generated sales of $46,000, a modest number, yet the company was now able to move out of the garage and lease industrial space in Fountain Valley, California.

Newport also took advantage of its stabilized table business to launch a catalog in 1971. Newport Catalog became a wish book for high-tech clientele, a source for precision optic, electro-optic, and opto-mechanical products. During its first decade Newport pursued opportunities in whatever direction laser research took, such as holography and interferometry. In 1978 the company went public.

In addition to following the leads of others, Newport pursued its own interests. Matthews, for instance, was an avid shooter, and during the 1970s he began developing a laser sight for firearms. He received a patent on a laser sight in 1979, but the initial version was far too cumbersome to have commercial value. Because refining the sight would require far more funds than Newport could invest, Matthews asked the board to sell the laser sight business to him and some staff members (Peter Hauk and Ed Reynolds) who wanted to branch off. After the board agreed, Matthews resigned as Newport’s president, replaced by Chang, and founded a new company, Laser Products, which later adopted the name Sure-Fire LLC, makers of the SureFire WeaponLight, a weapon-mounted flashlight for the law enforcement and military markets. In addition, Matthews’ company would produce laser sights, shield lights, and baton lights so powerful they could blind and temporarily disable an opponent.

Laser Products introduced the first commercially available laser sighting system, the LPC Model 7, in 1979. It was mounted to a Colt Trooper .357 Magnum revolver and sold as a complete, laser-aimed weapon, powered by a huge battery built into the gun’s custom Pachmayr grip.

Fast forward to 1982-83. Ed Reynolds received a call from one of the prop houses to make a laser-aimed weapon for The Terminator, which was released in 1984. They wanted a laser mounted to an AMT Longslide .45…and they were unwilling to pay for it. Since there was no money for a custom power supply, there was a line running from the laser to a cable that connected to an external power supply. To fire the laser, Arnold Schwarzenegger had to reach into his coat pocket with his other hand and flip a switch.

The weapon with the cable shown, leading to the power supply.

Later, Reynolds mentioned that he did receive a T-shirt and some other promotional items from the movie in recognition of a job well done. There seems to be no doubt that The Terminator helped SureFire in the marketplace, which helped to advance John Matthews’ continuing passion for lasers and optics.