Laser Inventor Dies

Charles Townes, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has passed away at age 99.

Jan 29, 2015
Jenny Rood

WIKIMEDIA, NIBIBCharles Townes, who won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the laser, died this week (January 27) in Oakland. He was 99.

Townes was “one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century,” Ahmed Zewail of Caltech, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for using lasers to study chemical reactions, told the Los Angeles Times.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1915, Townes joined Bell Laboratories in 1939 after earning a doctorate in physics from Caltech. At Bell Labs, he designed radar bombing and communication systems for World War II, before leaving to become executive director of Columbia University’s Radiation Laboratory in 1948.

As part of a US Navy effort to use microwaves to enhance communications, Townes came up with the laser’s predecessor, the maser, in 1951. He and two graduate students built and patented the device in 1953. The maser, or “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” used light to excite molecules in a confined space to limit their wavelengths. Later, Townes replaced the microwaves with infrared light to create the laser; the first such was built in 1960.

After his breakthrough, Townes played a scientific advisory role to the government on moon landings and missile projects. He received many awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1982 and the first Golden Goose Award in physics, “honoring federally funded researchers whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefitting society in significant ways,” according to a Congressional press release.

“His overwhelming dedication to science and personal commitment to remaining active in research was inspirational to all of us,” Steven Boggs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley, physics department said in a statement. Townes was a professor at Berkeley from 1967 to 1986.

He is survived by his wife, four daughters, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.