Charles Hard Townes

We should explore as much as we can. We should think about everything, try to explore everything, and question things.” Charles Townes in an interview in 2005 (at age 90).

Charles Hard Townes was born on July 28, 1915, in Greenville in South Carolina. He was the son of Henry Keith Townes, an attorney, and Ellen Hard – hence his middle name. During his education at the public schools in his hometown he showed great interest in biology and natural sciences. He was a gifted learner and his school results were so good he was allowed to skip grade seven.

Education and career

In 1931 Townes entered Furham University in Greenville to study physics and modern languages. In 1935 he graduated summa cum laude with a B. Sc. degree in Physics and a B. A. degree in Modern Languages. Because physics fascinated him, he continued his studies at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he was awarded his M. A. degree in Physics in 1936. For his Ph. D. he went to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, where he received his Ph. D. degree in Physics in 1939.

In 1939, Townes joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City where he worked as a researcher on designing radar bombing systems during World War II as well as radio astronomy. He also started looking at using microwave technology in high-resolution spectroscopy. While in New York City he enjoyed its cultural life and he attended classes at the Julliard School of Music. In 1941 he married Frances H. Brown with whom he had four daughters.

In 1948, Columbia University in New York offered him a post as Associate Professor of Physics – a position he gladly accepted. This allowed him to continue his research in microwave physics. In 1950 he became Professor and from 1950 to 1952 he served as Executive Director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory. From 1952 to 1955 he served as Chairman of Columbia University’s Department of Physics.

Inventing the maser

At Columbia, Townes continued his research in the use of microwaves, which is a low-frequency radiation, in his study of the molecular structure of gasses and other matter. To produce short wavelength radiation he made use of oscillators. When the military asked for wavelengths of less than one millimeter, he realized that oscillators could not be used for that purpose. Using stimulated emission and amplification he conceived the “maser” – acronym for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. His breakthrough idea came to him in 1951 while sitting on a park bench waiting for a restaurant to open. He quickly wrote down his brainwave on the back of an envelope. Later, his hometown of Greenville commemorated this episode with a statue near Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville.

In 1959, Townes left Columbia University and served as Vice President and Director of Research of the Institute for Defense Analyses. This non-profit research organization advised the U.S. government on national security issues, particularly those requiring scientific and technical expertise. Initially only five universities were involved, but this had been expanded to twelve universities by 1964.

In 1961, Townes was appointed Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge in Massachusetts. In 1966 he accepted a post as Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley. He retired in 1986 and still lives in Berkeley, California.

The laser

Where masers operate with invisible light, lasers operate with different wavelengths, i.e. infrared, ultraviolet and visible light. Together with his brother-in-law, Arthur Leonard Schawlow, Townes described in 1958 how masers could operate optically with visible and infrared light. However, they never constructed an optical laser. It was Theodore Harald Maiman who developed the first operational laser in 1960. The word “laser” is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”.

When the first optical laser was constructed in 1960, it was called “a solution looking for a problem”. Since then, the use of the optical laser has been manifold, including applications in the computer industry.

Some of the most common applications of laser technology are:

  • Laser printers use laser beams to project the image to be printed onto a rotating drum. The toner particles are then transferred electrostatically to the drum which heat-fuses the image onto the paper. This process results in a high quality print, even at high speed printing.


  • CD-ROM and DVD drives – the same applies to normal CD (Compact Disc) and DVD players – operate with a laser beam “reading” the metalized coating on a plastic disc. The reflected light is measured and translated into a binary “0” or “1”. This is returned to the computer and converted back to the original data, be it text, music or image.
  • A laser pointing device using a red light can be used in presentations.
  • In construction lasers can be used to ensure something is straight or level. This is applied when laying pipes, soccer fields, railway lines, underground tunnels.
  • Laser cutting devices are used in the steel industry. Lasers can also be used to align machines, e.g. robotic manufacturing devices.


  • Scanning equipment in the retail industry uses a red light laser beam to “read” the barcode on a product. This barcode is converted by the computer into a product description and the product’s price is fed to the cash register at the till.
  • The entertainment industry uses laser light shows and holography for 3D photography.
  • Surgical lasers can be used for a variety of applications, such as: laser scalpels, brain cancer treatment, corrective eye surgery, removal of skin imperfections and similar uses.
  • Military use: laser-guided missiles and rockets.

Laser beam guiding
Russian moon rocket

Townes honoured

Charles Townes has received 27 honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. In addition he has received numerous prestigious awards, such as:

1956 – Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
1961 – Awarded the David Sarnoff Electronics Award by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).
1962 – Received the John Carty Award from the National Academy of Sciences.
1962 – Awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal by The Franklin Institute.
1963 – Received the Young Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics for distinguished research in the field of optics.
1964 – Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Nikolay Gennadiyevich Basov and Alexander Mikhaylovich Prokhorov “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle”. The Russian physicists Basov and Prokhorov, who had independently arrived at a similar maser-like device, have both been named on one of the stamps of a 2000 Russian sheetlet of 12 stamps, featuring Nobel Prize winners.
1976 – Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
1979 – Awarded the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal by the Dansk Ingeniorforening for outstanding work for the peaceful utilization of atomic energy.
1980 – Inducted into the South Carolina – his home state – Hall of Science and Technology.
1982 – President Ronal Reagan presented Townes with the National Medal of Science.
1994 – Elected Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
2000 – Awarded the Lomonosov Medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences.
2005 – Awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The Templeton Prize was worth about $1.5 million at the time. Charles Townes has often explored the intersections between science and religion, in works such as “Synthesis of Science and Religion“ (1987), and “Theological Education“ (1988).
2006 – Received the Vannevar Bush Award for “Lifetime Contributions and Statesmanship to Science”.


Philatelically speaking, Charles Townes has been portrayed only twice on a stamp: a Ghana sheetlet of 1998, titled “Famous People and Events of the Twentieth Century – Inventors and their Inventions”. This sheetlet of eight stamps dedicated two stamps to Towns: one stamp featuring his portrait and one stamp showing “Various Uses of Lasers”. In the margin a few details about Townsend are given (see above).
The second Townes stamp is from a 1991 St Vincent sheetlet showing Nobel Prize winners.

In 2008, Bhutan issued a set of stamps on two mini-CDs. The CDs had a diameter of 8 cm and contained historic photos and video material of the five kings in Bhutan’s 100 years of monarchy. Although stamps have been issued earlier in the shape of a CD, the Bhutan issue were the first stamps on a real CD which was playable using laser technology enabled, but never envisaged, by Charles Townes.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2010

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