Three recent concurrent incidents brought about a burst of recollections. The first had to do with a request from a law firm, involved in a patent infringement action, wanting to dig around in my old laser product files. Checking those in dead storage for any useful information was a reason to revisit the early 1970s through sales brochures of pioneer laser and systems suppliers. What a trip back in history!
The second came courtesy of Carl Hildebrand, president of Great Lakes Laser Services, a mid-West laser job shop. Carl is a contemporary who, by dint of longevity, recalls those frantic early days when a group of naive young engineers started the industrial laser business. Every once in a while we share some laughs about those “good old days.”
Carl was cleaning out his old files and sent me copies of early publications describing the then infant industry. Some of the photos in these documents are a questionable testament as to how well we have aged.
One document that stimulated my memory bank actually precedes my involvement in laser technology. It is a Business Week Special Report cover feature on “The Laser” dated August 18, 1962. What caught my eye was a subheadline that reads, “Lasers won’t figure in mass-marketed goods, but they’re a boon to science and advanced industrial technology.” This is supported by an artist’s rendering of a variety of laser possibilities, including cutting and welding by mechanical-arm-mounted devices.
Considering the sophistication of laser technology, Business Week did a nice job of explaining laser theory, even taking a crack at quantum physics. But it was references to industrial applications that I looked for, and there are just two in a seven-page article; drilling little holes in tungsten and work being done by two companies in developing metalworking and welding tools.
What wasn’t mentioned in the article is associated with the third incident; the recent death of Gordon Gould, whose early contributions to laser technology were totally ignored by Business Week. Gould, courtesy of an historic U.S. Patent reversal, was belatedly awarded the definitive patent on the light amplification concept for what he named the laser. At the time this article was written, Townes, Schawlow, Maiman, and Javan were the luminaries of the technology.
In a number of contemporary publications there have been several apocryphal stories about how Gordon Gould came up with and recorded his theories and how bureaucratic fumbling prevented him from rightfully claiming the title “father of the laser.” Revisionists are having a field day eulogizing Gould and much of what they are writing is, from their perspective, enlightening and certainly makes for great David and Goliath analogies. I always liked Gould, having had mostly positive relations with him in the tumultuous years when the patent claims, being aggressively enforced by the law firm he sold out to, threatened to stultify the incipient laser industry.
This page, My View, allows me to speculate. I always believed that Gordon Gould really wanted, royalties aside, the title “father of laser technology.” At an early 1970s Laser Institute of America board meeting, discussing who should be given society recognition and accolades, I proposed that we do the right thing by honoring him as the “Co-inventor,” along with Schawlow and Townes. Because of residual bitterness at companies that had been seriously affected by the patent reversal, and who were paying 17 more years of royalty payments and facing the threat of litigation, I was voted down. Too bad, such a simple gesture may have had far reaching consequences and possibly changed history.