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On this day in 1960, scientists Charles H. Townes and Arthur L. Schawlow received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for their “masers and maser communication system,” known today as the laser, an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”

Work related to laser technology started long before the duo of Townes and Shawlow made their breakthrough. Townes developed the first ever “microwave amlification by stimulated emission of radiation”, or “maser,” in 1953 based off of Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect. Einstein’s paper actually built off of Max Plank’s 1900 paper on the law of radiation—Plank’s work suggested that light delivers energy in chunks.

Charles H. Towees works with the first prototype of the ammonia maser that he invented. (Image: Dan Rubin via the June 1955 cover of Radio-Electronic magazine )

Townes and Schawlow began working together at Bell Labs in 1957. Bell Labs filed a patent for the maser June 30, 1958, despite the fact that the laser hadn’t been made yet. Townes and Schawlow published a paper on the work, called “Infrared and Optical Maser,” in the journal Physical Review later that year. Hughes Research Laboratories announced on July 7, 1960 that it had built the first working laser via the work of their employee, Theodore Maiman.

An picture of Charles H. Townes and Arthur L. Schawlow's "masers and maser communication system." (Image: United States Patent and Trademark Office)

Townes was awarded half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964. Russian physicists Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolay Basov shared the other half “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle,” according to the Nobel Prize website.

Schawlow would later share one half of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981 with Nicolaas Bloembergen "for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy,” according to the Nobel Prize website. The other half was given to Kai M. Siegbahn.

Townes and the development of the laser isn’t without controversy. Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould had met with Townes in November 1957. It was during this meeting that Gould reportedly confided his idea for the laser with Townes. Gould and his employer Technical Research Group applied for patents relating to his ideas in 1959. Townes and Schawlow got their patent for the laser in 1960, while Gould’s application was shot down. Gould eventually received a patent pertaining to laser technology in 1977 and began receiving money for his work in 1988.

[Via Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, Bell Labs, United States Patent and Trademark Office]

Real Time Digital Reporter
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