In memoriam: Ironies mark colorful life of laser inventor

In mid-September, barely three weeks before the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three optics and laser scientists, Gordon Gould died at the age of 85 in Lenox Hill Hospital (New York, NY).

In mid-September, barely three weeks before the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three optics and laser scientists, Gordon Gould died at the age of 85 in Lenox Hill Hospital (New York, NY). It’s not hard to imagine that Gould, who fathered the LASER acronym and received millions of dollars in laser patent royalties, but who never finished his PhD and was overlooked when the Nobel Prize Committee recognized contributors to laser development, is smiling.

Such ironies appear to have been more the rule than the exception in the colorful life story of this inventor, particularly with respect to the laser. Jeff Hecht, author of Beam: the race to make the laser (Oxford 2005), relates that one of the defining events of Gould’s eventual involvement in laser development, occurred more than a decade prior to the actual invention. While working at the Manhattan Project during World War II, Gould fell in love with and eventually married a woman with Communist sympathies. The marriage did not last but years later, when Gould’s employer, TRG, was awarded $1 million by the Department of Defense to develop Gould’s ideas, Gould was prohibited from participating. The Pentagon placed a security classification on the project and refused to give Gould a security clearance because of his Communist past, which as Hecht points out, “hobbled the project.”

After a 30-year patent battle during which Gould signed away 80% of his rights to pay legal expenses, Gould became a multi-millionaire as royalties from the laser industry began to flow in. Ironically, the payments would have been much smaller if Gould’s claims had been recognized earlier, particularly before lasers began to take on such a ubiquitous role in consumer related items. According to an obituary in the New York Times, the notebook entries substantiating Gould’s seminal contribution to laser development were penned during a “caffeine- and nicotine-fueled weekend in 1957.” When he died, 48 years later, he was suffering from emphysema, attributed to years of smoking.

- Hassaun Jones-Bey

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