Does Gould get his gold? Science

Gordon Gould and the battle over laser

Gordon Gould   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Getting the name right means a lot to us – the human beings. Parents spend months deciding what to name their newborn. And when they finally do it, it is an event in itself. As for businesses, brands and inventions, money and time are spent on deciding the name. For how someone or something is known does go a long way with it.

Gordon Gould was instrumental in coining a name. He was also involved in the idea, but his misunderstanding on how patents work meant that he had to be part of patent wars that lasted for decades. Did he go on to receive any credit? Let’s find out… Born in 1920, Gould did his bachelor's in physics and followed it up with a master's from Yale University in 1943. When World War II made its way, Gould applied to be a part of the Manhattan project. His security clearances, however, were revoked when it was learnt that Gould had been involved in a Marxist study group while still in college.

In 1954, Gould made his way to Columbia University as a graduate student interested in optics. Here he worked with Dr Charles Townes, inventor of maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), and they spoke about the possibility of applying the same idea to visible light.

For Gould, the insights to this question came on November 9, 1957. Through most of that Saturday evening and what remained of that weekend, he poured over his notebook, jotting down his ideas and making rough sketches. He named this yet to be invented device as LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and had his notebook notarised on November 13.

The Eureka moment

Gould realised that by using two mirrors in the form of a Fabry-Perot interferometer (incoming light between two surfaces is repeatedly reflected and refracted into multiple beams that are then focused together), an optical resonator can be made that can produce a narrow, intense and coherent beam.

The misunderstanding

Gould, however, was under the impression that a patent can be obtained only with a prototype. Dr. Townes, along with Arthur L. Schawlow, arrived at the same idea independently and had it patented in 1958, months before Gould eventually applied. They proposed the name "optical maser" for their device, but it was announced to the public as laser in 1959. Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories built the first working laser in 1960.

As for Gould, who believed he should have the rights to the invention, he began his fight with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to receive patents on laser and related technologies. And the result? Despite being drawn into legal proceedings for over 30 years and directing much of the royalties into the same, Gould came out on top, especially because his patents were much more valuable when he got them, than they were initially.

As for lasers, Gould wasn't far off the mark with his belief that lasers would be to optics what transistors were to electronics. From communications to surgeries, measuring devices to lighting displays for entertainment, lasers have had a far-reaching impact on diverse fields.

Write to A.S.Ganesh at ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 10:49:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/gordon-gould-and-the-battle-over-laser/article7860918.ece

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