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A detailed analytical investigation is presented of a nonlinear device termed the optical Kerr effect modulator (OKEM) which is used to passively switch and mode lock high-power lasers. Experimentally, an OKEM employing two standard quarter-wave plates is used to passively mode lock the Nd:glass laser. The mode-locking threshold dependence upon the parameters of the OKEM transmission function is definitively established. Pulsewidths and spectral measurements are given for the train of ultrashort pulses from the glass laser mode locked with the OKEM using two different Kerr liquids. The analytical and experimental results together indicate that the OKEM technique is a versatile and viable alternative and in addition overcomes most of the shortcomings intrinsic to the saturable absorber technique. The non-resonant nature of the OKEM suggests that it should find immediate application as a passive -switching and mode-locking element for a Variety of lasers, including dye lasers, UV lasers, the CO2laser, and, notably, the high-power iodine laser.