Columbia University

November 13, 1957 – Gordon Gould Coins the Term “LASER”

Gould’s notarized journal page for November 13, 1957

On November 13, 1957, physicist and boat-rocker Gordon Gould stared at a page of his lab notebook, had a  brain wave, and ran down to a local shop to find a notary.  At the head of this workday’s page he had written, “Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”.  No one had ever used the term “LASER” before.  Gould wondered if he were to document his work carefully, whether he could patent his new, potentially revolutionary discovery.

An atheist born to Methodist parents, a graduate of Union College and Yale and Columbia Universities, a member of the Manhattan Project until he was expunged for his activities with the Communist Political Association, Gould was a brilliant scientist working in the fields of optical and microwave spectrometry.  He became an expert in the developing field of optical pumping and contacted the inventor of the “MASER” (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) to see if a synthesis of the technologies could produce an optical version of the focused-microwave-emitting device.

Gould’s journal entries on November 16th regarding analysis and suggested applications for the new optical maser constituted the first written prescription for making a viable laser.  He publicized his work initially in a conference presentation in 1959.  Gould’s efforts to join the private sector to construct a working model for the deemed classified invention were frustrated by his prior involvement in the Communist movement.  He fought protracted battles for patent rights to the laser against other researchers working in the field at roughly the same time, but was finally awarded several patents both in the United States and abroad.  His thirty-year patent war was one of the longest-fought efforts in history, and resulted in the registration in his name of 48 patents in the fields of optical pumping, collisional pumping, and their applications.

In 1973, Gould founded Optelecom, which became a successful fiberoptic communications manufacturer.  Ever the free spirit, he left the company in 1985 because it was “boring”.  He was elected to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1991, and passed away in 2005 at the age of 75.