Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Laser in Mr. Gould's Notebook

On November 9, 1957, Mr. Gordon Gould, of New York, New York, started writing down a description of an optical device he called a “laser” in his notebook.  It was a Saturday night and he couldn’t sleep. The following Wednesday, he found a Notary Public at a local store near his apartment and had his idea witnessed and notarized. 

His description was entitled "Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”  It was a complete description of his invention in which he combined the concept of optical pumping of atomic excited states with the use of a resonant optical cavity called a Fabry-Pérot interferometer, a kind of fipple flute for light.  It was this combination that permitted emission of the intense, coherent, focused beam of light that would revolutionize communications, medicine, entertainment and almost every other aspect of our lives.

Here is the problem:  Mr. Gould did not file for a patent until 1959.  Meanwhile,  Bell Labs scientists, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, did apply for a patent on their similar but independently conceived discovery of how to make a laser - made three months after Mr. Gould's notebook entry. When Gould eventually did file in 1959, it took until 1977 to establish priority and gain the highly profitable royalties to which he was entitled. 

The story has many twists and turns, including a federal security order preventing Mr. Gould from even working on his invention because of his supposed leftist political leanings.  Meanwhile, the well connected scientists, Townes and Schawlow, received a Nobel Prize for inventing the laser and a similar device for microwaves, called a “maser.”  What turned the case in Mr. Gould’s favor was that he had written a complete description of how to make his invention in his notebook on that sleepless Saturday night, whereas the documentation for the laser provided by Townes and Schawlow did not include enabling instructions for building a laser.

Eventually, Gould was awarded U.S. Patents 4,053,845 and 4,704,583 and 46 other patents for his inventions – because he kept a good notebook.

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