Arthur Schawlow & Charles Townes, co-developed foundations for the laser

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Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes

Schawlow (left) and Townes

Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes remain connected on both a technology and a personal level.

After meeting initially when they both worked in the physics department of Columbia University in the fall of 1949, the pair are best known for their invention of the precursor to the laser: the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). On the personal side, Schawlow married Charles Townes' younger sister Aurelia Townes.

Often referred to as the two men who jointly took on the foundational work of the laser, the maser used ammonia gas and microwave radiation. This was followed by another discovery in 1957, when Schawlow, who was in the midst of an almost ten-year stint at Bell Labs, and Townes started work on their own study of an infrared laser, but later decided to work on one that would use visible light.

However, much like the famous war between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray over who actually invented the telephone, the development of the laser was the subject of controversy. Gordon Gould, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate with a thesis focusing on thallium, later recorded his idea for a "laser."

During a conference in 1959, Gould published the term LASER in a paper he delivered called The LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) with possible applications including spectrometry, interferometry, radar, and nuclear fusion. Gould was then met with his first real roadblock when the U.S. Patent Office denied his patent application in April 1959 and awarded a patent for a Bell Labs' "optical maser" instead in 1960.

What followed was a 28-year legal battle where Gould finally got recognition for his ideas when a federal judge granted him patents for the optically pumped and gas discharge laser devices.

Interestingly, neither Schawlow nor Townes, who actually spoke to Gould about radiation emission as a general subject, were aware that he was also developing open-resonator laser design in his still unpublished work.

While neither scientist may have not actually built the truly functioning laser--that would be done in 1960 by Theodore Maiman at the Hughes Laboratory in Malibu, Calif.--their foundational work was key to driving the application of lasers and optical technology in the telecom network.