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Nobel Laureate Charles Townes Keynotes EE Department Jack Munushian Lecture

Inventor of the laser -- a misunderstood technology at first -- describes excitement and pitfalls of scientific discovery

February 13, 2009 —

When Charles Hard Townes first demonstrated the maser – a device that amplified electromagnetic waves – his employer failed to see its potential.

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Charles Townes, left, and Dan Dapkus, electrophysics chair in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, socialize in the Gerontology Courtyard before the address.

“They didn’t think it had any use,” Townes told an audience of amused faculty, engineers and students on the USC campus February 11, 2009.  “They told me, ‘If you want to patent it, just go ahead and you can have the patent.’”

Townes’ employer was Bell Telephone Laboratories and Townes’ invention led to the invention of lasers – “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” – which won him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964.

Townes appeared in the Gerontology Auditorium on the USC campus with Ming Hsieh Department Co-Chairs P. Daniel Dapkus and Alexander ‘Sandy’ Sawchuk to deliver the third annual Jack Munushian Keynote Lecture. The endowed lectureship is hosted each year by the department and followed by a reception.  

Townes took the opportunity to recount his early work in microwave technology and its applications to wartime radar systems.  That led to the Nobel laureate’s interest in spectroscopy, which he foresaw as a powerful new tool for the study of atoms and molecules, and additionally, as a potential new technology for controlling electromagnetic waves.

Townes said his first masers puzzled people, because they didn’t understand what benefits the technology could possibly have. That puzzlement was quelled within a few short years, which surprised even Townes, as laser applications (using visible light rather than microwaves) began to take hold.

“I didn’t imagine its uses in medicine,” he said.  “It didn’t occur to me… Now I’m using lasers in astronomy … of all things.”

His invention was introduced in the 1950s.  Having joined the faculty at Columbia University as associate professor of physics in 1948, Townes was a full professor by then. He served as executive director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory from 1950 to 1952 and was chairman of the Physics Department from 1952 to 1955. 

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Taking questions from the audience.

He took a leave from Columbia University from 1959 to 1961 to serve as vice president and director of research of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization which advised the U.S. government and was operated by 11 universities.

In 1961, Townes was appointed Provost and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  As Provost he shared with the President responsibility for general supervision of the educational and research programs of the Institute.  In 1966, he became Institute Professor at MIT, and later in the same year, resigned from the position of Provost in order to return to more intensive research, particularly in the fields of quantum electronics and astronomy.

He was appointed University Professor at the University of California in 1967. In this position, he participates in teaching, research and other activities on several UC campuses, although he is headquartered on the Berkeley campus.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Townes has received the Templeton Prize for contributions to the understanding of religion, and a number of other prizes, as well as 27 honorary degrees from various universities.


Click here to listen to Townes' full Jack Munushian Lecture. Click here to watch the webcast.

The Jack Munushian Lecture was established to honor the late Jack Munushian, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering, who spearheaded the Viterbi School’s distance learning program.  Munushian, who died in 2005, organized the school’s computer science department and served as its first chair.