This week’s History of Fiber Optics is a continuation from George Gilder’s book, “Telecosm.” Around the time that Townes and Schlawlow were publishing their results and the implications, a perennial graduate student at Columbia, Gordon Gould, was filling notebooks with his own ideas about light stimulation.
Gould, a former student of Townes, had been invited to Townes’ laboratory in late October 1957, to discuss Townes’ idea for using thallium lamps—then still under top secret official wraps—for pumping stimulated light. Gould, who was an avowed Marist, at the height of the cold war was barred, from independent access to such militarily sensitive information. But, two weeks later Gould’s notebooks were full of ideas—notarized by his uncle Jack in the Bronx.
They read in places like a Popular Mechanics article, a stream of consciousness catalogue of stimulated gasses and hypothetical devices, including everything from metal drilling and welding to heavy-water nuclear fusion.
If the Nobel Prize was Townes’ dream, Gould’s notebooks became his worst nightmare. Gould had yet to finish his thesis, let alone build anything powerful enough to singe a Kleenex. But, while Townes and Schlawlow were publishing papers on what they called “Optical masers,” Gould was busily applying for patents, using his notebooks for proof and he called it a “laser.” A nightmare indeed!
When Townes attempted to patent his maser, he couldn’t get it through his head that what he was calling a maser had already been supposedly invented and patented by Gould? Although, Gould and his team did not build a working laser device until years later, his notebooks and talent at coining names made him the financial winner.
In later decades, just as the laser industry exploded into a $600 million bonanza, Gould won court decisions granting him a stream of royalties for optical pumping lasers, gas lasers, and drilling, cutting, and welding with lasers—a fortune that ultimately approached 50 million. Not bad for a Marist perennial grad student. But Gould’s vision of lasers was wrong in terms of the telecommunications field, where microwaves, radio waves, X rays, gamma rays, and visible light were concerned—all are, as Townes insisted, indivisibly part of Maxwell’s rainbow.
At least Townes got his Nobel Prize, but ironically, neither Townes nor Gould built the first working device to stimulate visible light. Both Townes’ team at Bell Labs and Gould’s Long Island based company, TGR, had thrown themselves down the blind alley of gas lasers, fixing on gasified potassium as a medium. This gas had suitable spectrum characteristics, but also an unfortunate tendency to explode and blacken the lasing chamber.
Only in 1962, when he turned to a mixture of neon and helium, did Townes eventually produce a working laser.
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