Union in the News for September 22, 2005
Gordon Gould memorialized
By Kenneth Aaron - The Times Union
Gordon Gould, the Union College alumnus who may or may not have invented the laser but played a key role in its development nonetheless, died Friday. He was 85.
Regardless of the controversy in the scientific community over just who invented the powerful device, at the end of the day, Gould captured many of the spoils: After a decades-long court battle, he was given patents that ultimately paid him millions of dollars.
And it was Gould who gave the laser its name, writing it in a notebook after a furious weekend of chain-smoking and brainstorming in 1957. It's short for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation."
Gould promptly took the notebook to a Brooklyn candy shop, where it was notarized. What he didn't do, though, was file for a patent, because a lawyer gave him the faulty impression that one needed a working model before the government would recognize it.
In the meantime, Charles H. Townes and Arthur Schawlow, of Bell Labs, published a paper outlining a laser about a year later. The work ultimately garnered a patent, and, for Townes and two others, a Nobel Prize in 1964. Gould, left to stew, embarked on a 30-year legal fight in 1959 that became so expensive he needed to finance it by signing away 80 percent of the royalties he was scrapping for.
"Historically, they got the credit and Gordon didn't, and it took many years for him to win the patent rights and he probably still didn't win the acclamation rights," said Jay Newman, who is the R. Gordon Gould Professor of Physics at Union.
Gould, who grew up idolizing Thomas Edison and other inventors, wanted to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but Union offered him a better scholarship. He found himself at the Schenectady school -- Edison's northern backyard -- working on heady projects and talking with skilled scientists. He was one of the few physics students on campus; most science students were engineers. Frank Studer, a physics professor, inspired Gould to further study light and optics.
He graduated from Union in 1941 and went to Yale University, where he got a master's degree, and from there went to Columbia University to work on his doctorate.
But he abandoned that to try building his laser, a decision that his wife at the time did not understand. She wanted him to be an academic.
Gould, though, considered himself "more of an inventor than a real scientist," said Newman, who once visited Gould at his ranch in Breckenridge , Colo. "He enjoyed thinking about how things worked and coming up with new ideas for creation."
Nick Taylor, an author who wrote a book about Gould called "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the 30-Year Patent War," said he believed Gould could have achieved even more had he not expended so much energy on his court battles.
For a while, his political activity got in the way of his science, too. After leaving Columbia, he joined a Long Island company that received a $1 million Department of Defense grant. But Gould's dalliance with communism meant that he couldn't get security clearance to get near the lab.
Instead, he was given an office with a separate bathroom and no lab access, Taylor said. And while other scientists could ask him questions, they had to be phrased in such a way that Gould wouldn't know what they were working on.
Taylor said he considers Gould the laser's inventor, as he created a pair of basic types of light amplifiers that were crucial to making a laser. "What continues to stand out is the rejection of Gould by the scientific establishment," Taylor said. He pointed to Townes, who took shots at Gould in his autobiography, as an example. The portion of the Bell Labs Web site that discusses the laser's history doesn't even mention Gould.
The snubs were said to have stung Gould. He was able to invest in new technology with the money, Newman said, and also in Union: Gould gave more than $4 million to the school.
He also had great pride in the laser. In a June 2002 article in the Schenectady Daily Gazette, he talked about having laser eye surgery performed.
"You can imagine how I felt when I looked into that machine and saw that flash," Gould said. "I was thinking, my God, if I hadn't been around ... I wouldn't have an eye."