Laser pioneer Gordon Gould is born, July 17, 1920

-July 17, 2017

On this day in tech history, Gordon Gould, the disputed inventor of the laser, was born. Gould believed lasers would do for optics, what transistors had done for electronics, and he spent decades trying to get credit for his role creating them.

He received a bachelor's in physics from Union College in 1941 and a master's from Yale University in 1943. When he was drafted in World War II he applied to work on the Manhattan Project, but he was dismissed and his security clearance revoked after it was discovered that his wife was involved with the communist party.

In 1954 Gould became a graduate student at Columbia University where he worked with Dr. Charles Townes, the inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). In 1956, Gould had an idea he proposed to Townes: use optical pumping with the maser to amplify light.

A light-wave amplifier would be much more powerful than a maser since every photon of light has a hundred thousand times more energy than a photon of microwave energy.

Townes suggested he document his ideas, so Gould laid out his concept in a notebook which he entitled, "Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation" (see photo).

He designed a device that used a single concentrated beam of light created by two mirrors in a gas-filled chamber, which he predicted could heat a substance to the temperature of the sun in a millionth of a second. Gould's notebook was notarized in a candy store on November 13, 1957.

But he didn't apply for a patent until 1959 and by that time Townes had already patented the technology. Townes would later share the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for developments that led to the laser.

Gould left Columbia to work at TRG (Technical Research Group) where he hoped to build the first laser. The company got funding to explore development of a laser weapon from the Department of Defense which made the project classified. Because his clearance had been revoked in 1943, Gould could not participate and didn't have access to his own notes. It was then, in 1960, that Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories built the first working laser.

After a long court battle, Gould was finally granted a patent for "Optically pumped laser amplifiers" in October 1977. When Gould's use patent was approved in 1988, it covered most of the lasers made in the US.

Despite having to direct much of the royalties he received to fund the lengthy court battles, he made millions with the success of laser technology. His patents were actually much more valuable when he received them than they would have been initially.

Gould passed away on September 16, 2005, and while the inventor of the laser is still debated, he did receive a handful of laser patents, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Also see:

Also on this day in tech history:

On July 17, 1975, a US Apollo capsule docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule carrying a two-man crew, marking the first time the two different countries met in space and ending the “Space Race” that had come before it.

For more moments in tech history, see this blog.
EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on July 17, 2013 and edited on July 17, 2017.


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