Dr. Charles H Townes

What separates humans from other life forms is the ability not only to think but to reason, to combine both recursive and combination modes of cognizance. Throughout the history of humanity, not all inventions, discoveries, and miracles arose from the hard work of humankind. From Columbus’ accidental discovery of the Americas to the discovery of the transistor from work on a semi-conductor amplifier by another employee of Bell Labs, all support the observation made by the Nobel laureate Dr. Charles H. Townes: Inventions are often the indirect results of one human’s quest for knowledge.

In his later years, he reflected upon his invention of the Maser in a talk with Lenox Laser. His “How New Things Happen” speech started out with recounting his time working during the Second World War: Bell Labs, his employer, assigned him to work with radar to aid the conflict. It was during this time that he had the idea of creating the shortest radar in terms of wavelength – a feat to push the wavelength into the area of light.

After the war, he tried his luck with his idea only for it to fail, but this failure led to his research with molecules and later with Columbia University. His continued work at Columbia also led to failure. Then, the United States Navy called for his expertise in the field of radar. A year of traveling the country later and Dr. Townes was still without answers until his last day of work with the Navy led to him considering new ways to complete his goals. With his equations written down on a piece a paper in his pocket, he returned to Columbia University.

Dr. Townes and his students continued his work on shortening the wavelength of radar. Dr. Townes grew frustrated with his work, but he wasn’t the only one; his Nobel-winning colleges told him that he was wasting the department’s time and money on his invention. One day, as he was teaching the class, a student by the name of Jim Gordon burst into the classroom, saying that the oscillator had worked in amplifying molecules. He and his students then came up with the name “Maser” – Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation.

His discovery led to the further improvement of the device along with the creation of new instruments called lasers. Years of failure and doubt led to the accidental development of the Maser from his work with radar, and Dr. Charles H. Townes happily reflected that his work created the laser industry. Our work within the field of laser drilling and laser micromachining would not have been possible without the hard work and the accidental discovery of the Maser. It would seem even in Dr. Townes’ invention that his observation stood true. If you are interested in watching or reading about the talk given by Dr. Townes to Lenox Laser, please click this link.

Dr. John C Mather's History of the Universe in a Nutshell: From the Big Bang to Life and the End of Time
PDA 2020