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In Memoriam: Charles H. Townes, 1915-2015

Jan 27, 2015

Nobel laureate Charles Hard Townes, an OSA Fellow and recipient of the Frederic Ives Medal (1996), died on 27 January 2015. He was 99. Charles was a luminary in the field of optics and photonics and was highly regarded by colleagues and the numerous students he mentored.  
"This week the optical community lost one of its greatest pioneers – a curious spirit who left an indelible mark on humanity and modern life," said Elizabeth Rogan, OSA CEO.  "His work has impacted fields as far flung as medicine and astronomy, and the technologies he pioneered have profoundly influenced the shape of the modern telecom and entertainment industries."

Future Nobel Laureate Said he Could Not at First "Find the Right Job"

Charles Hard Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 28, 1915. He attended Furman University in Greenville, where he received a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in Modern Languages in 1935. Physics had fascinated Townes since his first course in the subject during his sophomore year in college because of its "beautifully logical structure". Townes completed his M.A. in physics at Duke University in 1936, and then entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in 1939 with a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins.

In a 2001 interview with science writer Joanna Rose, Townes describes how his inability to find a job in academia led him to work in an industrial laboratory.
"I got my PhD at a time when there were very few jobs – the Great Depression before World War II – and there were very few jobs in the universities, and I couldn't find the right job" Townes said. "So somewhat reluctantly I went into industry, you see, but it turned out to be a great thing for me."

A member of the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1939 to 1947, Townes worked extensively during World War II designing radar systems, and has a number of patents in related technology. From this he turned his attention to applying the microwave technique of wartime radar research to spectroscopy, which he foresaw as providing a powerful new tool for the study of the structure of atoms and molecules and as a potential new basis for controlling electromagnetic waves.

At Columbia University, where he was appointed to the faculty in 1948, he continued research in microwave physics, particularly studying the interactions between microwaves and molecules, and using microwave spectra for the study of the structure of molecules, atoms, and nuclei.

He was interested in building a device that would produce short-wavelength radiation, which would allow him to study the hidden atomic and molecular structures of matter, and it was this interested that led him to his most famous contributions to science – the invention of the maser and the first proposed laser.

In 1951, Townes conceived the idea of the maser, a laser precursor, while sitting in a park one sunny morning in Washington D.C., and a few months later he began building it, using ammonia gas as the active medium. In early 1954, he completed the device with the help of graduate student James Gordon and post-doctoral researcher Herbert Zeiger, and together they obtained the first amplification and generation of electromagnetic waves by stimulated emission. Townes and his colleagues coined the word "maser" for this device, which is an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

In 1958 Townes and his brother-in-law, Arthur Schawlow, then a Stanford professor, showed theoretically that masers could be made to operate in the optical and infrared region and proposed how this could be accomplished in particular systems. This work resulted in their joint paper on optical and infrared masers, or lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Shortly thereafter, in 1960, Theodore Maiman demonstrated the first working laser.

Townes’ other research has been in the fields of nonlinear optics, radio astronomy, and infrared astronomy. He and his assistants were the first to detect the complex molecules ammonia and water in interstellar space and first measured the mass of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

While at Columbia Townes served as executive director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory and was chairman of the physics department. During a leave of absence he served as vice president and director of research at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C.

In the 1960s Townes served as provost and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where his research focused on the fields of quantum electronics and astronomy. Townes left MIT in 1967 when he was appointed University of California Professor at large, based at the UC Berkeley campus.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Townes has received numerous other prizes as well as 27 honorary degrees from various universities around the world. His awards include the Templeton Prize, for contributions to the understanding of religion.

Townes has served on a number of scientific committees advising governmental agencies and has been active in professional societies. This includes being a member, and vice chairman, of the Science Advisory Committee to the President of the United States, Chairman of the Advisory Committee for the first human landing on the moon, and chairman of the Department of Defense Committee on the MX missile. He also served on the boards of General Motors and of the Perkins Elmer Corporations.

Charles Townes was the recipient of the following OSA Awards and Honors.

1963 OSA Fellow
1968 C.E.K. Mees Medal
1970 OSA Honorary Member
1996 Frederic Ives Medal / Quinn Prize

If you would like to make a memorial donation to the OSA Foundation fund or endowment in honor of Charles Hard Townes please visit If you have any questions please contact

The OSA community mourns the passing of Dr. Townes and OSA leaders provided the following remembrances.

Dear Friends,
Oh dear- I am so sorry to hear this very sad news. I had thought he was immortal, but I suppose in a real sense he truly is, through his amazing scientific contributions! We won’t see his like again! 
Best wishes to you all
Sir Peter Knight FRS
2004 OSA President


He was my PhD advisor, mentor and friend.  I mourn his passing.

Elsa Garmire
1993 OSA President


Very sad news - - -   It was an honor to know him. He lived an incredibly fulfilled life and leaves us an inspiring legacy.

Eric W. Van Stryland
Pegasus Professor, Past Dean and Trustee Chair
2006 OSA President


This loss marks the passing of an era.  For more than 60 years Charlie Townes was a towering influence in American physics.  I met him first when I was a grad student at Berkeley in the 1970's, as one of our larger-than-life professors, a group that included also Luis Alvarez, Owen Chamberlain, Emilio Segre, and even infrequent appearances by Edward Teller.  My experiment demanded I work in my laser lab deep in the second basement of Birge during the wee hours night after night, and on more than one occasion I encountered Townes in the building elevator at 2 or 3AM on his way to his office on the 5th floor.  One time I asked him if he was tired and he said not when the physics is interesting. He was searching for evidence of a black hole in the center of the galaxy.  This was quite controversial at the time, but eventually he succeeded.

Phil Bucksbaum
2014 OSA President


Dear Friends:
Celebrate Charlie Townes’ life!  He was a great scientist and inspiration all the way to the end of his long and productive life.  Thanks to Phil for his wonderful vignette, it is easy to picture Townes pursuing his science in the wee hours.  I look forward to hearing more of these stories as the community remembers this great man.

Susan Houde-Walter, Ph.D.
2005 OSA President


Very sad news. He was a much valued member of the committee that helped establish the MPI Science of Light in Erlangen (where I am based). He and his wife Frances visited us on several occasions, which is when I got to know them both. He was a wonderful physicist and a very generous person. 
Philip Russell
2015 OSA President

Dr. Townes reflected both brilliance and generosity of spirit in his many OSA encounters.

Elizabeth A. Rogan

In addition to all his other achievements, Charles Townes was a pioneer of heterodyne long-baseline infrared interferometry in astronomy.

Chris Dainty
2011 OSA President

Awards & Distinctions

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