‘Died: Gordon Gould, 85, laser pioneer who coined the name, Friday, New York’

In late September, the pithy obituary notice, reproduced above, appeared at the very bottom of the “What’s News” column on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, along with the usual carefully edited snippets of news about big-business affairs and political shenanigans that the paper’s editors deemed important for the captains of industry to read on that day.

In late September, the pithy obituary notice, reproduced above, appeared at the very bottom of the “What’s News” column on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, along with the usual carefully edited snippets of news about big-business affairs and political shenanigans that the paper’s editors deemed important for the captains of industry to read on that day.

Notice that the highly respected newspaper did not say, “inventor of the laser,” as others have mistakenly done. Even The New York Times carefully noted the passing of a “figure in the invention of the laser.” And the Associated Press went with the even more vague “laser technology pioneer.” The AP and New York Times stories were carried by Google’s news section and were syndicated to many newspapers across the country. The stories will probably still be retrievable from electronic archives, should you wish to compare the reporting.

I can’t tell whether the WSJ took its lead from the AP, but I suspect that the desk editor was in need of a couple more lines of copy and so he or she turned reflexively to the AP’s news-feed and up came the Gould story. Such are the choices that desk editors make in the ebb and flow of news across their desks or, more accurately today, across their computer screens. It’s worth noting that the flood of news that we all see electronically owes its existence in no small part to the laser.

Of course, few of us will ever merit even a line or two on the front page of the WSJ to note our passing. Needless to say, it was quite surprising to me to see Gordon Gould’s name pop up on the front page of the WSJ as I drowsily sipped my first cup of restorative java for the day. Although I never met Gould, I had more than a smidgen of sympathy for him in his long battle for academic recognition and financial rewards for his signal efforts at the frontiers of laser research. I guess that I thought of Gould as the underdog in a field full of champion greyhounds although I doubt very much if Gould ever saw himself that way.

I don’t have the space to delve into the 30-year patent battle of Gould versus the rest of the world but you can read two excellent accounts in The Laser in America, by Joan Lisa Bromberg (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991), still the definitive laser history despite stopping at 1970, and Laser Pioneers, a series of vignettes by my colleague and fellow science writer Jeff Hecht (Academic Press, Boston, 1992).

To his credit, Gordon Gould is to be admired at the very least for his dogged determination. He began his bitter and lengthy patent fight in the late 1950s and did not win a significant victory until 1987. From that point on, Gould began to receive royalties that some observers have estimated to exceed $30 million. Ironically, because of the widespread industrial application of lasers, those royalties were considerably higher than if Gould had been successful with his 1959 patent application.

Also somewhat ironically, Gould did benefit directly from the medical application of lasers. In 1984, he underwent successful laser eye surgery for a detached retina. Later, Gould commented to an Associated Press reporter, “You can imagine how I felt to be looking into that laser and knowing I played a part in getting it there.” In 1984, “looking into a laser” required a degree of confidence that was always a major part of the Gould persona.

In my view, it is only fitting that in the pages of Laser Focus World, we should give more than two lines and a tip of the editorial hat to the man who gave us the word LASER and had the vision to anticipate its importance to the world of optoelectronics. No, unlike the inventors of the maser, Gould didn’t get a Nobel Prize for his work on lasers. There are those of us who think he “coulda bin a contenda.”

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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