Union Notables

Gordon Gould    class of 1941

Gordon Gould, photograph courtesy of Union College Alumni Office

Known best for his invention of the LASER, a term that he coined, and for his thirty-year struggle for patent rights, Gordon Gould was born in New York City in 1920 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Union College in 1941. He completed a Master’s degree at Yale University, and then went to work on the Manhattan project in New York. In 1949 he returned to his studies, attending Columbia University under Polykarp Kusch (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1955), while also teaching at City College of New York in the early 1950s.

At Columbia, Gould worked on optical pumping (an essential component of many lasers) for his Ph.D. dissertation and had all but completed writing the thesis by 1957. Beginning in the fall of that year, Gould worked on the concept design of the laser. He had some interactions with Charles Townes (who shared the 1964 physics Nobel Prize with Arthur Schawlow, and who invented the maser – a microwave predecessor of the laser), and Gould realized that Townes was also working on the design of a laser. He decided to write up his ideas so he could apply for a patent; the heading in his notebook was: “Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” There were nine pages of description and figures that he had the prescience to get notarized. Gould also anticipated a variety of laser applications in industry and medicine.

Due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the patent process, Gould thought he needed to build a working model before applying for a patent. He left Columbia and got a job at a private research lab where he spent a year refining his designs. He applied for a first patent in 1959, but was denied because Townes and Schawlow had applied a year earlier. Thus began the thirty-year struggle to get patent rights and recognition for his early work.

Laser

It was not until 1977 that Gould obtained a first patent on laser optical pumping. By this time the laser industry was worth $400 million a year, while optical pumping was used in about 80% of all lasers. It would take another eleven years before he would win enforcement rights, but despite having signed away 80% of his patent rights for legal fees, he quickly became a multi-millionaire. By 1988 he had four laser patents, as well as forty-four other patents from his industrial work, and had taught for six years at the (now) Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. He started his own fiber optics communication company, Optelecom, and in 1991 he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Union College awarded Gould an honorary Doctor of Sciences in 1978 and the Eliphalet Nott Medal in 1995. In 1995 Gould established an endowed chair in physics at Union in honor of Professor Frank Studer, who inspired him to pursue optics as a career.

Gordon Gould died in 2005 at the age of 85.