Gordon Gould, 85; Physicist Finally Got His Due for the Laser
Gordon Gould, the prolific physicist who was widely credited with inventing the laser in a caffeine- and nicotine-fueled weekend in 1957, then spent 30 years persuading federal courts to uphold his patents on a device that has now become ubiquitous, died Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was 85 and suffered from emphysema resulting from years of smoking.
Derided as an “attic inventor” with a “candy-store patent,” Gould was forced to sit on the sidelines when Charles H. Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with two Russian physicists for developments that led to the laser. Gould had the last laugh when he received patents on the device that brought him more than $30 million in royalties.
Gould was a physics graduate student at Columbia University in November 1957, living off his wife’s income while finishing up his thesis, when he conceived the laser in a late-night flash of inspiration. He spent the weekend laboriously compiling nine pages of calculations in his laboratory notebook, then had the foresight to have the work notarized at a neighborhood candy store.
Those notes contained the first known occurrence of the term laser -- an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation -- a name that stuck. “I knew from the beginning it was the most important thing I would ever get involved with,” he said later.
But some bad advice from a lawyer led Gould to believe that he had to produce a working model of the device before he could apply for a patent. Despite the concern of his wife, who questioned how an invention could be more important than finishing his PhD, he dropped out of Columbia and began working to bring his vision to fruition.
He joined a company called TRG (for Technology Research Group) on New York’s Long Island, which saw the potential benefits of the device and applied for a Defense Department grant to develop it. TRG received the grant, but Gould -- whose first wife had led him into a brief flirtation with communism in the 1940s -- was forbidden to work on the project and even to view his original, now classified, notes.
Meanwhile, Townes and his colleague Arthur L. Schawlow published a paper describing their own research on the laser and elbowed Gould aside by filing their own patent application in 1958, which was awarded to Schawlow’s employer, Bell Laboratories. Neither of them received any royalties, however, because Bell chose not to follow up on it.
The first working laser was produced in 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu.
Frustrated by the lack of recognition, Gould began a decades-long series of court battles to win approval of the 10 patent applications he submitted in 1959. Because of the great expense of the legal battles, however, he was forced to sign away 80% of the royalties to the companies who financed his legal battles, most notably Patlex Corp., now in Las Cruces, N.M.
He won his first battle in 1977 but did not actually begin collecting royalties until 1988, when the Patent and Trademark Office finally granted his claim for invention of the optically pumped laser. Ironically, the delay served to fatten the payoff. By the late 1980s, lasers were widely used in home entertainment products, auto manufacturing, grocery store checkouts and a host of other applications.
Had the patent been issued when he first applied, the payout would have been much smaller because there were then few uses, said Richard Laitinen, chief financial officer of Patlex.
The money also soothed the wounds created by the Nobel committee’s oversight. “Gordon said he didn’t care about [not receiving the prize]. He cared about the money,” Laitinen said.
And as for who actually invented the laser, Laitinen added, “that argument will rage on forever.”
Gordon Gould was born in Manhattan on July 17, 1920, the son of a Scholastic magazine editor and a mother who stoked his interest in invention through gifts of Erector sets and similar toys.
He received a bachelor’s in physics from Union College in 1941 and a master’s from Yale University in 1943, then took a draft-deferred job in a New York laboratory that was part of the wartime Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
There he suffered the first of many amorous misadventures, becoming infatuated with Glen Fulwider, an ardent communist whom he subsequently married. Their security clearances were ultimately revoked. He found a position with a glass company and taught night classes at City College of New York.
After the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, “I suddenly had the blinders removed from my eyes,” he later said. “My wife didn’t, and we parted company soon after.”
In the Red purges of the early 1950s, Gould lost his teaching job at City College. He ultimately enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, where he worked down the hall from Townes. By that time, he had reunited with Ruth Hill, a former girlfriend from Yale, and they married in 1955.
While he was working at TRG to develop the laser, he began an affair with Marcie Weiss, the company’s security officer. According to Nick Taylor’s biography, “Laser,” the pair planted a marijuana patch on company property for their own use.
When Hill found out, she threw him out. He later married Marilyn Appel.
Along the way, Gould worked for several technology and glass companies while investing in high-tech start-ups. By the time he began receiving royalties from the laser, he was already a millionaire.
A few years ago, a doctor used a laser on Gould to repair a detached retina. “How do you think I felt about staring into that laser?” he said.
After Gould retired in 1985, he and his wife toured the country looking for a place to live. Eventually, they decided on Breckenridge, Colo., where they took long hikes and sponsored chamber music concerts, and she sang in the Colorado Symphony chorus.
The altitude proved too much for his emphysema, however -- even though he had given up smoking a decade earlier -- and the couple made their final home in Sag Harbor on Long Island.