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Charles Townes
Charles Townes
Profile of Charles Townes Biography of Charles Townes Interview with Charles Townes Charles Townes Photo Gallery

Charles Townes Biography

Inventor of the Maser & Laser

Charles Townes Date of birth: July 28, 1915
Date of death: January 27, 2015

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  Charles Townes

Charles Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina. Althoug his father was an attorney, the family lived on a farm outside the city, and young Charles Townes grew up close to nature. He studied the stars in the night sky and collected insects from the fields. His family supported his scientific enthusiasms.

He entered Furman University, a small college in Greenville, in his mid-teens. With an omnivorous appetite for learning, he studied every science available to him and graduated at age 19. In only four years, he had earned two degrees, one in modern languages and a second in physics. The years between the world wars were exciting for a young physics student, and Townes, with his gift for languages, devoured the latest scientific literature, absorbing the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Charles Townes Biography Photo
Now settled on a career in physics, Townes earned a master's at Duke University and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. On completing his doctorate in 1939, he took a job at Bell Labs in New York City, where he worked throughout World War II. During the war, he worked on an advanced radar system for Allied bombers, and received a number of patents for his work. As the armed forces sought to apply radar to shorter and shorter wavelengths, his work moved from the radio segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to that of microwaves. Townes looked forward to applying his work with microwaves to spectroscopy, the use of radiation to study the properties of matter. He foresaw that microwaves would permit unprecedented exploration of the structures of molecules and atoms.

After the war, Townes became an associate professor of physics at Columbia University, where he soon met Arthur L. Schawlow, a graduate student. For a time, Schawlow served Townes as a research assistant. Over the years, the two became close friends, brothers-in-law and scientific collaborators. In 1950 Townes became a full professor at Columbia and was appointed Executive Director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory.

The following year, Townes conceived an idea that would transform technology. He imagined that microwaves could be amplified through contact with an electron in an excited state, creating an intense, continuous stream of microwave energy. He and Schawlow soon set to work on making this concept a reality. Townes and his team named the concept MASER, an acronym for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." Fortunately for Townes, the U.S. government continued to support microwave research for its possible military applications, but many of Townes's colleagues at Columbia saw his project as a waste of the government's money. They believed the project was impossible at worst, and useless at best. Although the principle Townes was exploring was known to the physics community, no other researchers pursued its application. In 1952, Townes became Chairman of the Physics Department at Columbia and within another year the first practical maser device was tested successfully.

Charles Townes Biography Photo
Townes's vision was vindicated, but few in the scientific community saw any application for maser technology. In 1955 Townes published the book Microwave Spectroscopy, written with Schawlow. On sabbatical from Columbia, he traveled to France and Japan, lecturing and meeting with scientists from many fields whose work shared points of contact with his own. On returning to Columbia, he also served as a consultant to Bell Labs in the mid-1950s, further developing the maser concept. Townes was contemplating the possibility of amplifying energy at wavelengths a thousand times shorter than the maser. If he could amplify radiation at microwave frequencies, why not at infrared frequencies? And if at infrared frequencies, why not at the frequencies of visible light? While existing light sources emitted a diffuse beam over a range of frequencies with an inconsistent intensity, Townes pictured a narrow, focused, steady beam, operating at a single wavelength with controlled intensity. This concept interested both Bell Labs and the military.

In 1958 Townes and Schawlow published a paper in Physical Review, proposing the concept of the laser ("light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation"). For years, Townes had argued that amplified radiation could have powerful applications, but now the rest of the scientific community "saw the light," and a spirited competition began, to see who could build the first practical laser. Townes had little interest in profiting personally from his discoveries and had given his maser patent to the non-profit Research Corporation. He intended to give the patent for the laser to Bell Labs, which had funded the research, but a number of researchers contested the application.

Charles Townes Biography Photo
In 1960 Townes received his patent, and the first working laser was built by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Aircraft. By this time, Townes had taken a leave from Columbia to serve as Vice President and Director of Research for the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington. With the launch of the satellite Sputnik, the United States and the Soviet Union had entered into an intense competition in aerospace technology and the expertise of top-flight physicists such as Charles Townes was highly sought after.

Laser technology won quick acceptance in industry, research and telecommunications and Townes received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his "fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle." In 1966 Townes became Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As the United States embarked on Project Apollo, the manned moon mission, a rift opened between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and many in the scientific community. Colleagues of Townes's at MIT expressed serious doubts about the value of manned space flight and suggested that the dollars budgeted to NASA could be better spent on other areas of research. Townes accepted an appointment as Chairman of the Advisory Committee to Project Apollo, to secure support for the mission from the larger scientific community and ensure that the moon flight would yield maximum benefits in scientific research. As Chairman of the Committee, he had the satisfaction of observing the first moon landing from mission control in Houston.

In 1967 Townes became University Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he would spend the remainder of his academic career, until his official retirement in 1986. In the 1980s, the applications of the laser for transmitting data over fiber optic cable and reading optical media -- such as computer hard drives, compact discs, digital video and even the supermarket barcode reader -- have transformed the storage and distribution of information throughout the world. The Internet and all digital media would be unimaginable without the laser.

Townes received the Niels Bohr International Medal in 1979 for his contributions to the peaceful use of atomic energy. In the waning days of the Cold War, the rapport that physicists such as Townes enjoyed with their Soviet colleagues provided a valuable channel of communication between the superpowers.

Charles Townes Biography Photo
In addition to many awards for his contributions to science, in 1995 Townes received the Templeton Prize for his efforts at reconciling the claims of science and religion. A practicing Christian, he always saw religious faith and scientific investigation as convergent paths to ultimate truth.

In 1941 Charles Townes married Frances Brown. The couple enjoyed a marriage lasting more than six decades. They raised four daughters and enjoyed a lifetime of travel and outdoor activities, including mountain climbing. In his ninth decade, Charles Townes was still traveling the world, discussing the future of science. He told the story of his life and accomplishments in two books, Making Waves (1995) and How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist (2000). Mrs. Townes told her side of the story in a book of her own, Misadventures of a Scientist's Wife (2007). Charles Townes spent his last years in Berkeley, where he was Professor Emeritus at the University of California.

This page last revised on Jan 28, 2015 10:12 EST
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