Physicist, Nobel laureate. Townes was born in Greenville on July 28, 1915, the second of six children born to Henry Keith Townes, an attorney, and Ellen Hard. He grew up on a farm and was interested in natural history from an early age. Townes visited the collections of the Charleston Museum and was fascinated by the differences in plants and animals he saw on the shore and in tidal inlets and those of his own Piedmont region. He attended Greenville public schools and Furman University, where he received a bachelor of science in physics and a bachelor of arts in modern languages, graduating summa cum laude in 1935. Townes completed work for a master of arts in physics at Duke University in 1936 and entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he received his doctorate in 1939. He married Frances H. Brown of New Hampshire on May 4, 1941. The couple has four daughters.
As a member of the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1939 to 1947, Townes designed radar bombing systems during World War II. He subsequently joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he served successively as associate professor, professor, and chairman of the physics department from 1948 to 1961. From 1959 to 1961 Townes was vice president and director of research of the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, D.C., and then served as provost and institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1961 to 1966. Since 1967 Townes has been a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He became university professor emeritus in 1986 and professor in the Graduate School in 1994.
Townes’s principal scientific work has been in microwave spectroscopy, nuclear and molecular structure, quantum electronics, radio astronomy, and infrared astronomy. He holds the original patents for the maser and the laser, the latter of which he shares with his brother-in-law, Arthur L. Schawlow. Townes conceived the idea of the “maser” (an acronym for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) in 1951 and achieved the first amplification and generation of electromagnetic waves by stimulated emission in 1954. Four years later Townes and Schawlow suggested that masers could be made to function in the optical and infrared region. They dubbed these optical and infrared masers “lasers” (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). His pioneering work with masers and lasers earned Townes the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964.
During much of his career Townes has been a government adviser. In 1960 he was a founding member of the Jasons, a group of scientists who provide advice to the government regarding national issues that involve science and technology. Townes served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1966 to 1970 and was chairman of the technical advisory committee for the Apollo Program until shortly after the lunar landing. He chaired committees on strategic weapons and the MX missile and has been an active member in the National Academy of Science. Additionally, he has been active in helping to formulate advice given by the Papal Academy to the pope on issues of peace and the control of nuclear weapons.
Townes is the author of three books: Microwave Spectroscopy (with Arthur Schawlow, 1955), Making Waves (1995), and How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist (1999), as well as numerous articles. His achievements have been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science (1982) and no fewer than twenty-seven honorary degrees.
Townes, Charles Hard. How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
———. “A Life in Physics: Bell Telephone Laboratories and World War II, Columbia University and the Laser, M.I.T. and Government service, California and Research in Astrophysics.” Interview by Suzanne B. Riess. 1991–1992. Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.