Laser-Scan History

historyFoundation and first product
Laser-Scan was founded in 1969 by three academics from the Physics Department of the University of Cambridge. At the Cavendish Laboratories, Professor Otto Robert Frisch, FRCS, (an eminent physicist who created the terms ‘chain reaction’ and ‘nuclear fission’ in a paper which laid down the fundamental theory that led to the atom bomb and to nuclear reactors for power generation), led the team. The other two academics were John Rushbrooke (who remained at the Cavendish, running their research group on subatomic particles) and Graham Street (who became the first Managing Director of Laser-Scan).

Working together, the academics had created and built in the Cavendish laboratory a prototype of a machine called Sweepnik that used a laser beam, moved around by mirrors, to follow lines on photographs. These photos were of bubble chamber experiments to identify the elementary particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) which are the building blocks of matter.

Colleagues from other research institutes around the world saw the prototype Sweepnik at the Cavendish laboratory in action and recognising its potential asked to purchase one. Realising the potential of the scanner, the academics raised financial backing to build additional equipment and started the firm of Laser-Scan in 1969 to produce Sweepniks.

The first Sweepnik was shipped to Helsinki in 1972 and was followed by sales to many other countries including France, America, Belgium, India, Japan, Greece and Egypt.

HRD-1 Display/Plotter
Having successfully shipped the first few Sweepniks, the academics saw an opportunity to build other devices using similar laser-beams and mirrors. The first of these was the High Resolution Display No.1 (HRD-1), which instead of reading images from film was able to write images onto film. The film could either be postcard-sized ‘diazo’ for permanent hardcopy or be a photochromic film projected onto a screen to give a large display of a metre across.

The HRD-1 lived up to its name. Even today, a modern workstation screen is capable of reaching 1000 addressable lines of pixels, whereas the HRD-1 had 140,000 by 100,000 addressable points. Even allowing for the fact that the light spot was 10 times bigger than the addressability, this was still 10,000 lines resolution. The HRD-1 remains to this day as one of the very few computer displays in the world on which a complete map can be drawn to scale and the detail can be seen without zooming in and out.

The HRD-1 was exhibited at graphics shows and two market areas expressed an interest. One was Digital Mapping, then in its infancy. The other was the security printing industry, including the design and printing of bank notes and bonds. Of the two, the security printing industry wanted to write its own software and just bought Laser-Scan hardware. Around a third of the banknotes in the world were designed using Laser-Scan hardware, including the British notes.

The HRD-1 used a powerful argon ion laser cooled by water and, pulling 30 amps on three phase electricity to produce about 300 milliwatts of beautiful turquoise light, focussed into a spot about 10 microns across. This spot could either draw on photochromic film to produce the image for the screen, or by swinging a mirror out of the way, could draw on diazo film to produce postcard-sized hardcopy.

The HRD-1 at the Experimental Cartographic Unit (ECU) was the third one built. It was driven by a DEC PDP-9 minicomputer. In fact it was not very mini, as it filled two bays each about 4 metres long by two metres high. The PDP-9 had 16K words of core memory (real magnetic cores – no chips yet) with an 18-bit word length, able to store three 6-bit characters per word. This is in the days before the 8-bit byte had been invented.

Laser-Scan provided no applications software with the HRD-1. The main software that was provided was an interface library called LDLIB which had been written by a researcher at Cambridge University called Peter Woodsford. He had been a member of Cambridge University’s CAD Group, where he developed the pioneering GINO graphics package (which is still in widespread use world-wide). Since joining Laser-Scan in 1975, Woodsford held a series of technical, managerial and directorial positions before becoming Deputy Chairman of the company in 1990.

Building on its success, Laser-Scan operated from premises behind the CAD Centre on Madingley Road, Cambridge. The pre-delivery trials and training were held there with a party of three researchers from ECU headed by Dr. Les Thorpe, an independent consultant working at UK Hydrographic office.

In addition, the ECU HRD-1 acted as a reference point for Laser-Scan. Within two years another HRD-1 had been sold for digital mapping – this time to Rijk Waater Staadt (RWS) in Holland. RWS asked Laser-Scan to write map editing software to drive the HRD-1, which instigated a new area of expertise for the company – (and out of which, a spatial software company was later born). Over time ‘Mapping’ became an important market for Laser-Scan and LAMPS software has been used by many of the major national mapping agencies around the world.

FASTRAK, Lasertrak and VTRAK
In 1975, following on from its success with the ‘Sweepnik’ and HRD-1, Laser-Scan received a request from a major military agency in Britain.  Having seen the Sweepnik following lines and the HRD-1 drawing maps, the agency asked Laser-Scan if they could produce a line-following digitiser for maps. The result was originally called the HRD-1 Digitising Option, secondly – the FASTRAK and finally the Lasertrak. The task of writing the software for map data capture was much harder than originally envisaged because of a problem in pattern recognition. However, after several false starts, acceptable software was developed, which used very different algorithms to any other automatic digitising systems. These line following algorithms have outlived the original expectations of the developers, and were used until recently in Laser-Scan’s VTRAK products.

In 1983, the console of FASTRAK was re-engineered for better ergonomics and appearance and the software had major new capabilities added for Junction Recognition. The resultant new automatic digitising system was launched in the ACSM show in the USA as the Lasertrak.

The transition from Lasertrak to VTRAK occurred in around 1987 when the costs of raster scanners and computer workstations fell to a level where it was more cost effective to implement the line-following software on commodity hardware than to produce and maintain the expensive and delicate Laser-Scan Lasertrak hardware.

The first production map editor for the HRD-1 had been written in 1975, and was called SOLADI. It also ran on the FASTRAK and Lasertrak machines, as these were a superset of an HRD-1. Various customers liked it, but wanted to use their Lasertraks just for digitising, so Laser-Scan was asked to make its map editing software available on commodity hardware. Computer workstations had not yet been invented, but Tektronix had recently produced the Tek4014 storage tube display.  SOLADI was made available on a workstation based round the Tek display, in a product called Interactive Graphical Editing System (IGES).

In 1979 the Laser-Scan mapping software was moved from the PDP-11 computers to the new DEC VAX range under the VMS operating system. This allowed us to enhance the functionality and the new suite became known as LAMPS (Laser-Scan Automated Map Processing System), with the main editing component called LITES (Laser-Scan InTeractive Editing System).

In 1985, another military contract allowed Laser-Scan to do a major re-implementation of LITES and the plotting and representation components of LAMPS. The new editor was called LITES2, and is still in use at many sites worldwide.

Laserplot and MLP-1
Building on the same laser deflection technology used in the HRD-1 and Lasertrak, Laser-Scan built other kinds of computer output devices. The Laserplot in 1985 was a precision plotter drawing on film of nearly A3 size. This could then be photographically enlarged to produce A0 films. The MLP-1 was a similar machine, but drew on 35mm microfilm and was sold mostly to engineering CAD installations.

The Yeoman Era
In May 2000, Laser-Scan was taken over by Yeoman PLC. The purchase of Laser-Scan enabled Yeoman to develop the new market of personal navigation, arising from the anticipated convergence of electronic positioning and mobile telephones. A group from the Laser-Scan software development team were transferred to a new company ‘Yeoman Navigation’ and built the first commercial service providing car navigation instructions direct to the mobile phone. Initially known as VoxNav, this was later renamed TravelM8.

The Yeoman takeover instigated a new management team, and a new focus, but continued to support the traditional Laser-Scan customer base of National Mapping Agencies and security printing systems.

Collapse and Rebirth
The Yeoman group soon ran into financial difficulties and in 2003 placed Laser-Scan into administration as insolvent. The administrators accepted a buy-out by the management.

The birth of Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd (2003)
For many years the company had had two clear areas of business (i.e. hardware and software development) and by 2005 it was decided to separate the hardware side of the business into a new company called Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd. This company now had a clear mandate to develop further the hardware business which was borne of Laser-Scan’s original hardware manufacturing activities. It was clear that there was a demand for these specialist support services and rather than going into terminal decline at the end of its era of hardware manufacturing this group was thriving and had sufficient prospects to stand alone in its own right going forward. This enthusiastic group of individuals was made up of former members of Laser-Scan’s support and development teams and had for some years been successfully selling their skills to provide global support and the occasional specialist product to high-end, high-tech clients and end users in the security printing and cartographic industries.

The software side of the company now focussed on spatial data quality tools for Oracle database and in 2007, changed its name to 1Spatial to reflect this focus.

The birth of Laser-Scan International Inc (2008)
In 2008 in response from a request to take over support of high-end computer to plate systems in America from the Swiss company Lüscher, Laser-Scan Engineering registered Laser-Scan International Inc in America. This new business drew on the experience of its parent Laser-Scan Engineering to provide an effective support structure for Lüscher’s American customers.

Management /Staff buyout (2010)
In 2010 Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd and its subsidiary Laser-Scan International Inc were purchased from 1Spatial by its management and some of its staff.

New branding and a new website autumn (2013)
Now properly resourced, the company is firmly focussed on further development of its products and services for new and existing customers.

The Future

Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd is proud to be part of a 45 year heritage which represents an unprecedented passion for technology. Several members of the current team cut their teeth on HRDs (and their optics) and the skills and the unique culture that is Laser-Scan is now being passed on to a new generation.

Unfortunately there are no more HRDs and Laser-Scan no longer manufactures large-scale systems like the HRD. But I’m pleased to say there is no shortage of work ranging from the installation and support of British-made, high-end direct laser engraving machines for the security printing market to the development of specialist small-scale software products. Some of the lasers are bigger and all the computers are smaller but the high levels of skill and enthusiasm that has defined the company for the last 45 years remains the same.
I would like to thank Paul Hardy whose” Laser-Scan history” I have heavily plagiarised for this document. [Paul Hardy - Former Chief Programmer, Product Manager and Principal Consultant at Laser-Scan, 1975-2003]. Paul’s website is  I would also like to thank everybody involved in Laser-Scan over the years who have made it all possible.

Max Stillaway

Max Stillaway is the Managing Director of Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd (and an employee of Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd since 1985)


Brief Summary of Milestones

  • 1968 – Academics from Cambridge University produce the prototype of a laser-based digitising scientific instrument called Sweepnik.
  • 1969 – Laser-Scan founded at Madingley Road to produce Sweepniks.
  • 1972 – First sale of Sweepnik by Laser-Scan.
  • 1972 – Prototype HRD-1 large-screen display and plotter built.
  • 1973 – First cartographic software written for the HRD-1, led to sales into early digital mapping.
  • 1973 – Laser-Scan is first company to move to the prestige Cambridge Science Park.
  • 1974 – First security printing software written for the HRD-1, led to sales into bank note design, initially to Thomas de la Rue, and then to state printing works through De la Rue Giori.
  • 1975 – Laser-Scan get contract to develop a map digitiser called FASTRAK for British military. The line-following algorithms developed form basis of later Lasertrak and VTRAK products, and the IFF file format remains central to LSL mapping software for 20 years.
  • 1977 – Customers like LSL mapping software, but ask that it be ported to use cheaper hardware with availability of commodity graphics displays. This is the start of Laser-Scan mapping software products independent of Laser-Scan hardware.
  • 1977 – Death of Professor Frisch.
  • 1979 – Major sale to the Ordnance Survey GB to build a national topographic databank includes porting to DEC VAX/VMS computer architecture – the basis of LAMPS for the next 20 years.
  • 1982 – Laser-Scan launched as US quoted company on NASDAQ, under name Laser-Scan International Inc.
  • 1982 – Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement for HRD-1/FASTRAK.
  • 1983 – Hardware sales continue with development of Laserplot – a small-format (A3) cartographic plotter, and the MLP-1 – a microfilm plotter used particularly for engineering CAD applications.
  • 1984 – A major re-engineering of the LAMPS software introduces the LITES2 editor and the TVES terrain visualisation packages.
  • 1984 – Design Council Award for HRD-1/Lasertrak.
  • 1984 – Sale of Lasertrak and LITES2 to USGS (£1 million order).
  • 1985 – Laser-Scan moves within Cambridge Science Park to new purpose-built building.
  • 1987 – A ‘virtual’ Lasertrak is created in software on a VMS workstation, becomes VTRAK digitising product.
  • 1988 – Merger of Laser-Scan with microfilm company Imtec gets British stock market listing.
  • 1989 – Major sale to Saudi Arabia in support of the Al Yamamah sale of Tornado aircraft.
  • 1989 – Horizon GIS is launched, takes Laser-Scan into wider GIS marketplace.
  • 1990 – New generation of Open Systems Object-Oriented software called Gothic under development, forms basis of products for following years.
  • 1990 – Management buy-out of microfilm business back to Imtec leaves core of company to concentrate on mapping and GIS, with London stock market listing in name of Laser-Scan Holdings plc.
  • 1991 – Gothic VTRAK is launched as first Open Systems product, for data capture from paper mapping.
  • 1992 – Gothic-based IGIS product addresses remote sensed imagery and vector GIS.
  • 1992 – Major LAMPS sale to INEGI Mexico of complete national digital mapping system.
  • 1993 – Major sale of Gothic ADE to Korea for national digital geographic systems.
  • 1995 – Launch of Gothic LAMPS2 Object-Oriented mapping product. Initial sales to UK Hydrographic Office (‘Admiralty’), Land Information New Zealand, Department of Survey and Lands of South Africa, and Ordnance Survey, Great Britain
  • 1996 – Hardware manufacturing ceases, leaving Laser-Scan as a leading Mapping and GIS software and systems provider.
  • 1996 – Collaborative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with NIMA, the newly formed US National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
  • 1996 – Laser-Scan joins OpenGIS Consortium at Technical Level, to promote real-time inter-operability of geographical object data.
  • 1996 – Launch of Gothic Integrator – Visual C++ application development environment
  • 1997 – Agreement to market UKHO ENC software, developed on top of LAMPS2. Initial sales to South Africa (SANHO) and USA (NOAA).
  • 1997 – Successful participation in NIMA Integrated Product Team (IPT) Laboratory gets foothold in biggest mapping organisation in the world.
  • 1997 – Collaboration agreement and funded contract with US Army Topographic Engineering Center (TEC) to integrate LAMPS2 with the SOCET SET digital photogrammetry system.
  • 1997 – Three-year EC AGENT contract awarded for research and development in Cartographic Generalisation.
  • 1998 – NIMA places DNC Production System (DNCPS) order with Laser-Scan
  • 1998 – LAMPS2 selected as Corporate Editor by Ordnance Survey Great Britain
  • 1998 – IPS1 contract awarded by UK Hydrographic Office for Y2K-prompted migration of range of databases. Implemented using Integrator and Oracle
  • 1999 – Laser-Scan participates in OGC Web Mapping Testbed
  • 1999 – Web Product and ‘Gothic Integrator Java Edition’ launched. EDINA contract awarded to Laser-Scan, to serve up Ordnance Survey data to the UK academic community. This is followed by NLIS web serving of complete LandLine coverage.
  • 2000 – Takeover of Laser-Scan by Yeoman.
  • 2001 – Major sale of photogrammetry systems integrated with LAMPS2 to Ordnance Survey GB
  • 2002 – launch of first application in new Radius family – ‘Radius Topology’.
  • 2003 – Installation of Object-Oriented aeronautical database and applications at AIDU (RAF).
  • 2003 – Laser-Scan declared insolvent and placed in administration by Yeoman group, making nearly half the staff redundant. Management buy-out of remains of company and move to new premises on Cambridge Business Park.
  • 2003 – The birth of Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd
  • 2004 – Yeoman group bought by Trafficmaster, who continue to use the Gothic technology for route navigation.
  • 2007 – The software side of the company name changed to 1Spatial ltd
  • 2008 – The birth of Laser-Scan International Inc
  • 2010 – Management /Staff buy-out of Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd and Laser-Scan International Inc
  • 2013 – New branding and a new website.