History of the Laser: Who Invented It?

As with most scientific inventions, the laser was a result of many discoveries and developments that happened over many years and involved many different people. The person who gets tagged with the label of inventor is usually the one who synthesized the existing research to come up with the invention in the form we now know it. To this day, however, the issue of who gets credit for inventing the laser is still being debated. Here is a brief overview of this peculiar case in scientific history.

Controlling Infrared Rays

Just a few decades before high-tech laser equipment started being used in operating rooms and ophthalmology offices across the world, the fundamentals of laser technology were being invented on paper by three American physicists: Charles Townes, Arthur Schawlow, and Gordon Gould. This was in the late 1950s, when the difficulty of controlling infrared rays caused most physicists to dismiss the possible usefulness of infrared light altogether.

In 1957, Charles Townes had his first breakthrough when he realized he could more easily control short-wave infrared light, whereas most physicists working on the problem had focused on trying to control far-infrared waves. By focusing on short-wave infrared rays, he could employ the same simple techniques used in controlling regular light. Townes discussed the issue with his physicist brother-in-law Arthur Schawlow, and it was Schawlow who came up with the idea of using a long narrow tube with mirrors on either end to stimulate infrared light atoms. One mirror had a thin sliver on it so that, as the atoms shot back and forth and gained energy, some of them would leak out and form a usable ray.

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Gordon Gould

While Townes and Schawlow were conducting their experiments, a grad student at Columbia named Gordon Gould was also researching ways of energizing atoms to get them to emit light. As he wrote out his ideas for the possible uses of concentrated light beams, he realized he was onto something big. He coined the term LASER in his notebooks. The word is an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

The War Over the Patent

Complicating everything was the fact that, in 1957 (the same year as Towne and Schawlow’s breakthrough experiments), Gould had spoken to Townes about his ideas regarding how to energize atoms to emit light. Worried that his ideas might be hijacked, Gould put them down on paper and had them notarized for the record. In 1959 he applied for a patent, only to discover that Townes and Schawlow, both now working for Bell Labs, had already filed for a patent nine months earlier.

Gould sued Townes and Schawlow, claiming he had been the one to come up with the laser device first. The legal battle continued for thirty years, over the course of which laser technology improved at a tremendous speed, making the stakes of the patent war higher and higher (i.e. if Gould was right, everyone who profited in the laser industry would owe him money). In 1987, Gould started winning many of the settlements, and the legal battle ended that same year.

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