History Timeline 1950's

Photo above: A race to the moon. Right: Allegheny Ludlum Steel Company, Pennsylania, 1940-1946, U.S. Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1950s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1957

    November 1957 - Gordon Gould, an American physicist, invents the laser, It would take him until 1977 to win a protracted legal battle over patent rights, and he did not start receiving royalties on his work until 1988. Gould was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991.


    Gordon Gould invented the laser, or he did not. It's always been a matter of contention just who invented the laser. There's no doubt that in November of 1957 that Gordon Gould made notes on such invention, got those notes notarized, and coined the acronym laser from his rough calculations on what he called "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." That would start a thirty year fight with the United States Patent and Trademark Office over patents and with laser manufactures over what he saw as his invention.

    Gould was an American physicist from New York City inspired by Thomas Edison, thirty-seven years old in 1957, and trained at Union College, Yale, and Columbia. He'd had an interesting past prior to his LASER idea. Gould had worked on the Manhattan Project for one year before his dismissal due to his affiliation with the Communist Political Association. He had two important associates while working on his doctorate, Polykarp Kusch, the Nobel laureate, and Charles Townes, the inventor of the maser and Nobel prize winner on that topic in 1964. Townes, a Columbia professor, agreed to witness Gould's 1956 optical pumping technique on the maser, and gave him advice on how to obtain a patent.

    By 1957, Townes and other physicists were looking for a way to amplify light. Gould came up with his LASER idea in November. Three months later, Townes and another colleague invented, independently what they would call the optical maser. When Gould went public with his name, invention, and idea in 1959, the name was adopted, despite the reservations of colleagues. Gould left his doctoral work, began working for a private company, Technical Research Group, and attempted to build a working model and gain a patent, which Townes supported. Unfortunately, Gould's association with the Communist Party prevented him from working on the project when the government termed the project classified. This led to the first working laser being developed at Hughes Research Lab by Theodore Maiman on May 16, 1960. Let the patent claim problems begin.

    Gould and the Patent Claim

    Once Gould had started working for Technical Research Group, they began applying for various patents based on Gould's work, including the laser. But Townes and his colleagues did the same and were awarded the first patent for the laser on March 22, 1960. Gould and Technical Research Group challenged that decision, based on the notarized notebook from November 1957 that stated Gould's theoretical find. In the meantime, others, including Hughes Research Labs and Theodore Maiman, started applying for patents based on their work on laser invention after they had built the first working prototype. The patent office denied Gould's challenge, contending that the notebook was not sufficient, and since they had not been able to build, as of yet, a working laser, there was no proof of concept. Other nations disagreed, granting Gould patents, and he continued to challenge the U.S. Patent Office for decades.

    A change of tactics in 1977 finally allowed Gould to gain a U.S. Patent. He discontinued the broad challenge and applied for a specific application, for optically pumped laser amplifiers. He was granted U.S. Patent 4,053,845. Now the fight changed venues; how to collect royalties from companies in a $400 million business that had been using that technology prior to the patent. The laser business challenged, not only to stop Gould from gaining additional patents, but to revoke the first, and a subsequent second. In 1987, Gould and his company, then known as Patlex, won their first suit to collect royalties. The company who lost, Control Laser, settled by giving the company to Gould. Subsequent manufactures thereafter licensed the technology.

    Image above: Laser light in modern times, 2001, Jeff Keyzer. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Image below: Gordon Gould, 1940, Wandering Angus. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source Info: Wikipedia Commons; U.S. Patent Office; Edisontechcenter.org; "Gordon Gould: The Long Battle For The Laser Patent," Christine Hintze, Electronic Design, October 19, 2006.

    Gordon Gould

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