Charles Townes - the Maser and the Laser

Resources with Additional Information · Awards and Honors

Charles Townes
Photo Courtesy of
Lawrence Berkeley National

Charles Hard Townes was educated at Furman University (B.A. in Modern Languages and B.S. in Physics in 1935), at Duke University (M.A. in Physics in 1937), and at the California Institute of Technology (Ph.D. in Physics in 1939).

' Townes was a member of the technical staff of the Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1939 to 1947. He worked extensively during World War II on the design of radar bombing systems. From this he turned to the field of the microwave spectroscope which he foresaw both as a powerful new tool for the study of the structure of atoms and molecules and as a potential new basis for controlling electromagnetic waves. …

Having joined the faculty at Columbia University as Associate Professor of Physics in 1948, Townes was appointed Professor in 1950. 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.'1

'He was provost and institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] from 1961 to 1965 and university professor at the University of California [at Berkeley] from 1967 to the present. In July 1986 he became university professor emeritus and in 1994 professor in the graduate school.

Townes’ principal scientific work is in microwave spectroscopy, nuclear and molecular structure, quantum electronics, radio astronomy and infrared astronomy. He holds the original patent for the maser [microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation] and with Arthur Schawlow the original laser [light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation] patent. He received the Nobel Prize in 1964 “for fundamental work in quantum electronics which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”

At the University of California, Townes returned to full-time research and teaching and pursued new interests in astrophysics. His work there in radio astronomy resulted in the first detection of polyatomic molecules in interstellar clouds and the use of molecular spectra to characterize these dark clouds, now an important astronomical field. In the infrared region, he has worked primarily on high spectral and spatial resolution for astronomical observations. Much of this work has been directed toward understanding the galactic center. Since 1988, Townes has been using a pair of moveable telescopes for obtaining very high angular resolution of astronomical objects at infrared wavelengths by spatial interferometry. A third telescope for this system has now been installed and provides phase closure.'2

1Edited excerpt from Townes, Charles H.
2Edited excerpt from Charles H. Townes: Biographical Data


Resources with Additional Information

Additional information about Charles H. Townes, the maser, and the laser is available in electronic documents and on the Web.



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Awards and Honors:

1982 National Medal of Science

2006 Vannevar Bush Award

2010 Gold Medal of SPIE (international society of optics and photonics -- founded as the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers) in Video Interview with Charles Townes:  The Early Days of Laser and Maser Research

Clemson Honors Nobel Laureate Charles H. Townes with Optical Science Laboratories Dedication

Townes Fellowships, Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California at Berkeley

The Townes Laser Institute, University of Central Florida



Interview with Charles H. Townes,

Adventures of a Scientist, Conversation with Charles H. Townes, Nobel Laureate

Charles H. Townes:  Quantum Electronics

Re-Inventing Inventing, springboard,


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