Image: Laser Stars
But there is more to the story. The Bell Labs patent wasn't issued until 1960. And the race to build the first working laser--a ruby crystal that emitted pulses of light at 0.69 microns--was won that same year by Theodore Maiman of Hughes Aircraft Co. Meanwhile, a graduate student at Columbia University named Gordon Gould had scribbled down ideas for a laser in 1957. Gould had his notebook, in which he coined the term laser, notarized. But he didn't apply for patents because he believed he had to build a working model first. By the time he did file in 1959, the Bell Labs application was already being considered by the Patent Office. Only after 20 years of bitter litigation did Gould win several key patents, beginning in 1977.
But whatever the official date, the work of these four laser pioneers sparked a technological revolution. In just four decades, the laser has become so commonplace that few people even realize that laser, now used as a noun, had its beginning as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation."
In their paper, Townes and Schawlow presented the idea of arranging mirrors at each end of a cavity containing a gas or substance that could be excited to emit light. The mirrors would bounce the light back and forth so that all the photons would be moving in one direction. The size of the mirrors and the cavity could be adjusted to produce one frequency of light.
Theodore Maiman was one reader of the article who decided to see if he could test the idea by building a working laser. He selected a crystal of ruby and coated each end with a silver mirror. One mirror was thinner so that some of the light could escape as a beam. The ruby was surrounded by a flash tube to provide the energy to stimulate the atoms in the crystal. The entire assembly was encased in a polished aluminum tube. It worked.
When the team at Bell Labs heard of Maiman's success, they dispatched Amnon Yariv, one of their colleagues who was vacationing in San Diego, to rush to Maiman's lab in Malibu. He returned with the bad (good) news. The laser now existed as more than a theory proposed by Albert Einstein's in 1917. Chagrined but not defeated, the researchers at Bell Labs soon bested Hughes with a laser that ran continuously, rather than in pulses (they replaced the flash lamp with an arc lamp).
The contentious genesis of the laser did almost nothing to slow the rapid pace of its development and commercialization. Patent piled on patent, Bell Labs and others churned out a steady stream of innovations that continues unabated today. The importance did not pass unnoticed. In fewer than six years from the publication of the Schawlow-Townes paper, the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared by Townes and by Nicolay Gennadiyevich Basov and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov of the Lebedev Institute in Moscow for their early work in masers ("microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") and the subsequent development of the optical maser, or laser.