Walk into any library, and you’re sure to find dozens, if not hundreds, of books chronicling the lives of inventors from Albert Einstein to Ray Kurzweil. These biographies often delve into the events that led a designer to craft his invention. But rarely do we get the kind of in-depth look into that inventor’s character that Nick Taylor gives his readers in his book “LASER: The Inventor, The Nobel Laureate, And The Thirty Year Patent War”
A short biography of Gordon Gould would certainly include a number of key facts. Gould invented the laser in 1957, but it was Charles Townes who was granted the patent after submitting a continuation application for his maser in 1958—adding optical pumping to his invention’s capabilities. It might even include a passage about how Gould approached Townes with his ideas for the laser less than a year earlier seeking advice on how to obtain a patent. (Gould was studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia University, where Townes was a professor, when he conceived of the laser.) But without the detailed depictions of these two main characters that Taylor weaves throughout “LASER,” the reader might never understand why it took 30 years for the inventor of the laser to receive its patent.
Gould was always an outsider in the scientific community. Having never received his Ph.D. and having been fired from the Manhattan Project for his alleged ties to communism, Gould was often dismissed by his peers.
“If they wanted to be nice, those serious scientists, they would let on that Gould was clever enough \[to invent the laser\] but just, well, not really serious,” Taylor writes. “He doesn’t publish in our journals, you see, he doesn’t go to our meetings. If they did want to be nice—and this was usually the case—they would hint that Gould had stolen his ideas from the august professor down the hall \[Townes\] and then tried to claim them as his own. Hardly anyone but Gould was willing to say that it might have been the other way around.”
Townes, on the other hand, was a darling of the scientific community. After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Townes went on to receive degrees at Furman University, Duke, and CalTech before inventing the maser in 1951.
“Meanwhile, working down the hall was a very serious scientist and professor who, by the way, obtained the first patent on a laser on went on to win a Nobel Prize—before someone figured out that the laser in his patent wouldn’t work.”
LASER is a must-read for any designer. While patent law has changed dramatically since Gould filed for his laser patent more than 60 years ago, politics in the scientific community continue to play a role in the success of modern-day inventors. And they will surely play an even greater role tomorrow.