When Gregory Makhov was 6 years old, his father, George, a physicist and laser research pioneer working in the San Francisco Bay Area, brought home a helium-neon laser.
The scientist lit a cigarette and shined the reddish-orange beam through the smoke. Makhov was fascinated. ”Laser light has something about it that is similar to watching a fire burn or water flow, that is innately attractive to the human eye,” he says. ”I became obsessed with it.”
Most first loves don’t last. But Makhov never stopped pursuing the technology of his dreams. Today he is immersed in laser entertainment, as an engineer developing new systems and as an artist designing shows. Last year 100 000 people saw the show he created for Spirit of America, a musical extravaganza that played in three U.S. cities. His laser display at Disney’s Epcot plays every night in Florida.
Being true to his love of light was more important to Makhov than getting a college degree. In 1976 he entered the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and signed up for whatever classes he thought could help him work with lasers—chemistry, environmental safety, advanced lighting in the theater department, electrical engineering, calculus, and even technical writing, because he had a feeling he’d be writing project proposals someday. His advisor took one look at his schedule and blanched, telling him that, at most, an interdisciplinary degree could cross two colleges, while Makhov planned to move among at least five.
The advisor gave Makhov a choice: attend college on a 10-year plan or take whatever classes he wanted but not expect a degree. Makhov picked the latter.
About two years later, during a school break, Makhov was in Longboat Key, Fla., where he met the manager of a new nightclub. The manager asked Makhov if he knew anything about lasers and then showed him a brand-new US $25 000 argon laser sitting on his kitchen counter. Makhov was staggered. ”The blue-green light was incredibly bright,” he recalls. ”Dangerously bright in retrospect.”
The man hired Makhov to figure out how to do something with that laser. Makhov bought the darkest sunglasses he could find, and then he started attaching model-airplane motors to mirrors to send the beam around the nightclub. His first laser show opened on New Year’s Eve, 1978.
It ran only a month. That’s when Makhov discovered he was violating government regulations that required such high-powered lasers to operate at least three meters above the floor; the club ceiling measured 2.75 meters.
The club owner then gave the laser to a friend, who let Makhov continue to work with it. Makhov experimented with different kinds of mirrors and developed devices to distort the beam. He learned the hard way about skin burns. And he stopped going to college, spending the rest of his savings on ancillary equipment and living expenses.
During the next few years, Makhov tried and mostly failed to make a living by designing laser shows. The night before a giant pep rally for the University of Florida football team, his water-cooled lasers shut down as he was aligning them, and the producer fired him. Makhov never saw a penny of the $6000 he’d been promised. At another exhibition for a small theater, somebody closed a door on the hose supplying the cooling water, blowing out the laser’s costly plasma tube.
To support himself and save up for a new tube, Makhov started doing lighting for rock concerts. He toured with Three Dog Night, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffet, Christopher Cross, and others. But rock stars didn’t interest him nearly as much as lasers.
Eventually Makhov returned to his true calling. In 1983 he set up a company, Lighting Systems Design, in Orlando, Fla., and by 1989 he was earning enough money to give up his day job. He rode the amusement park boom, building laser displays for Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven, Fla., and for all of the Sea World parks around the country. He installed planetarium shows and ran countless outdoor exhibitions in the United States, South Korea, and Poland.
Today, Makhov works full time at his company, with his wife and four part-time employees. Besides choreographing and installing shows, Makhov designs equipment for other laser-show producers. He also consults and teaches classes on laser safety.
His latest engineering effort is called a crowd-scanning laser. ”This is the holy grail of laser light shows,” he says. ”We can put a tunnel of light around you. We can sweep a plane of light down you. And we can do it safely.”
In countries where lasers aren’t as strictly regulated, crowd-scanning lasers have been employed with impressive artistic results—but potentially eye-damaging effects. So Makhov designed a fail-safe control system that reduces the laser’s power as it approaches the height of a human. The person watching doesn’t notice the change; any light seems brighter as it gets closer to the eye, so in Makhov’s design, the light appears constant even as it dims. Late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates lasers, certified Makhov’s crowd-scanning system, making it the first that can be legally used in the United States. He expects to sell or lease the devices to other show producers and is thrilled with their potential.
”Hugo Bunk in the Netherlands did a show with 15 separate lasers and audience scanning, and it was absolutely amazing,” Makhov says. ”Now that we’ve got audience scanning approved in the U.S., we can do something like that.
”And lasers are changing. The next generation of solid-state lasers will have some immense advantages over the current technology. They’re brighter—the colors are spectacular.
”I think I’ll be able to get some sometime next year,” he says with a dreamy look on his face. His romance with lasers still burns.