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Charles H. Townes

Charles H. TownesAKA Charles Hard Townes

Born: 28-Jul-1915
Birthplace: Greenville, SC
Died: 27-Jan-2015
Location of death: Berkeley, CA
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Invention of the maser and laser

Microwave physicist Charles H. Townes conceived of the maser (an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) in 1951, and designed and tested the first maser two years later. He said later that the idea of converting molecular vibrations into radiation came to him out of the blue as he was sitting on a bench in a public park.

With his brother-in-law, physicist Arthur L. Schawlow, he began working on the laser (also an acronym, for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) in 1957, and formally proposed that the principles of the maser could be expanded into the optical realm with lasers. In 1960 Townes and Schawlow obtained a patent for the laser and explained their idea in an article in Physics Review, which inspired a reader of the journal, Theodore Maiman, to build the first working laser.

In 1964 Townes won the Nobel Prize for Physics, shared with Nikolay G. Basov and Aleksandr M. Prokhorov of the Soviet Union, who conducted similar work independently. Townes was also known for his work on the Autler-Townes effect, Brillouin scattering, and self-trapping of light. He retired in 1986, but continued to maintain an office at the graduate school in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley until his death in 2015.

Father: Henry Keith Townes (attorney)
Mother: Ellen Hard Townes
Sister: Aurelia Townes Schawlow (m. Arthur L. Schawlow)
Wife: Frances H. Brown Townes (b. 1916, m. 1941)
Daughter: Linda Townes Rosenwein
Daughter: Ellen Townes Anderson
Daughter: Carla Townes Lumsden
Daughter: Holly Townes

    High School: Greenville High School, Greenville, SC (1932)
    University: BA Modern Languages, Furman University (1935)
    University: BS Physics, Furman University (1935)
    University: MA Physics, Duke University (1937)
    University: PhD Physics, California Institute of Technology (1939)
    Professor: Physics, Columbia University (1947-50)
    Administrator: Radiation Laboratory, Columbia University (1950-52)
    Professor: Physics, Columbia University (1950-61)
    Professor: Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1961-66)
    Administrator: Provost, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1961-66)
    Professor: Institute Prof. of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1966-67)
    Professor: University Professor, University of California at Berkeley (1967-86)
    Fellow: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

    Bell Laboratories Research & Development (1933-47)
    Guggenheim Fellowship 1955-56
    NAS Cyrus B. Comstock Prize in Physics 1958
    Franklin Institute Stuart Ballantine Medal 1959, 1962
    Institute for Defense Analyses Vice President, 1959-61
    NAS John J. Carty Award 1961
    Rumford Prize 1961
    Thomas Young Medal of the Optical Society 1963
    Nobel Prize for Physics 1964 (with Aleksandr M. Prokhorov, Nikolay G. Basov)
    IEEE Medal of Honor 1967
    Mees Medal of the Optical Society 1968
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1976
    APS Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy 1977
    South Carolina Hall of Fame 1978
    National Medal of Science 1982
    French Legion of Honor 1990
    NAE Founders Award 2000
    Mikhail Lomonosov Gold Medal 2000
    Templeton Prize 2005
    Vannevar Bush Award 2006 (with Raj Reddy)
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Astronomical Society
    American Philosophical Society
    American Physical Society
    Atlas Economic Research Foundation Templeton Freedom Awards Advisory Council
    Federation of American Scientists
    National Academy of Engineering 1998
    National Academy of Sciences 1956
    New York Academy of Sciences
    Optical Society of America
    Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science Foreign Member
    Pontifical Academy of Sciences
    Royal Society Foreign Member
    Russian Academy of Sciences Foreign Member
    Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society
    Member of the Board of General Motors

Official Website:

Author of books:
Microwave Spectroscopy (1955, physics; with Arthur L. Schawlow)
Making Waves (1994, memoir)
How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist (2002, memoir)

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