Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War

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In 1957 Gordon Gould, then an obscure physicist and perennial graduate student, conceived one of the revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century -- the laser. But before he could submit a patent application, a prominent professor of physics whose office was next door to Gould's filed his own laser patent claims. Gould fought to reclaim the rights to his work, beginning a battle that would last nearly thirty years. Many millions of dollars, as well as the integrity of scientific claims, were at stake in the ...
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In 1957 Gordon Gould, then an obscure physicist and perennial graduate student, conceived one of the revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century -- the laser. But before he could submit a patent application, a prominent professor of physics whose office was next door to Gould's filed his own laser patent claims. Gould fought to reclaim the rights to his work, beginning a battle that would last nearly thirty years. Many millions of dollars, as well as the integrity of scientific claims, were at stake in the litigation that ensued. Laser is Gould's story -- and an eye-opening look at the patent process in America, the nexus of the worlds of business and science.

Gould was struggling to finish his Ph.D. thesis when he struck upon the concept for the laser, or Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Light waves, Gould realized, would form a single concentrated beam when reflected between two mirrors inside a gas-filled chamber. Even as he was sketching his invention, Gould foresaw the tremendous potential of the laser in industry, communications, and the military. For three days he feverishly documented his ideas in a notebook, which he had notarized in a candy store near his Bronx apartment.

A small technology firm took a great interest in Gould's laser and soon won a Defense Department contract to develop lasers for the military. Ironically, Gould was denied a security clearance because of his past communist associations, and so was unable to work on his own invention. He could only watch from the sidelines as colleagues tried to build a working laser in a desperate race with larger, better-funded research labs.

Meanwhile, Gould's rival, Charles Townes, had everything that Gould lacked, most notably important academic and government appointments and esteem in the scientific community. In the dispute between the two men, few doubted Townes's word, while nearly everyone scoffed at Gould's claims. But Gould's determination was unyielding, and he fought everyone who stood in his way, including the U.S. Patent Office, major corporations, and the entire laser industry, until he finally won. Gordon Gould, the courts ruled, had invented the laser.

Laser is a grand story of technology and law. Nick Taylor has extensively interviewed Gould as well as other key participants in the battle over the laser's invention and patents. In this riveting account of genius, rivalry, and greed, he shows just how difficult it is for the legendary lone inventor to prevail when the license to a valuable invention is at stake.


Nick Taylor is the author or coauthor of eight books, including the national bestseller John Glenn: A Memoir, and numerous articles for magazines, including Esquire and The New York Times Magazine.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
History has witnessed many discoveries made almost simultaneously by competing scientists: Newton and Leibniz quarreled over who invented the mathematical system of calculus and even this year's mapping of the human genome was announced only after labored negotiations between two leading scientists. In his latest effort, the prolific Taylor (John Glenn; In Hitler's Shadow) recounts the compelling life of Gordon Gould, a young scientist who hit upon how to build a laser in 1957. Over the 30 years he spent fighting for the patent, he neither finished his Ph.D. nor attended conferences to raise his scientific credibility. During that time, he butted up against Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the "optical maser," as he called it, even though courts later ruled against the U.S. patent office, arguing that Townes's original design wouldn't have worked.(Under U.S. patent law, an inventor need not reach the patent office first to claim a patent, but only show priority in writing down an idea that can be realized by someone skilled in that field. Gould fortunately had had his original notebook notarized.) In Taylor's hands, Gould comes across like a hapless figure from Greek tragedy, pursued unrelentingly by a malevolent deity until a kindly one, in his case the U.S. judicial system, takes pity. While Taylor's research is thorough (though one might quibble with the precision of some of his technical descriptions), he tends to overwrite. Still, science buffs who enjoy reading about the triumph of an underdog or a good legal battle will enjoy the book, while libraries will find it a worthwhile addition to their scientific biography collections. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Edward R. Samuels
The story makes for a ripping yarn. Taylor manages to weave together the scientific workings of lasers, the intricacies of the US patent system, and the strange details of Gordon Gould's quirks and predicaments...Taylor does a great job of pulling together science, law, business, and human drama. There's a great surprise ending, too, even for those already aware of the outcome for Gould.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402881169
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/15/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.35 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Taylor
Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is the author of seven nonfiction books and collaborated with John Glenn on his memoir. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

"Call your first witness."

"Your Honor, I call Gordon Gould."

Gould pushed back his chair and walked toward the witness stand. The courtroom was not as large as some of the others he had seen. It was modern and low-ceilinged, with blond wood trim and polyester fabric on the chair seats, hardly grand enough, he thought, for the impact the trial would have, one way or another, on his life. But it would do, if only it were the last courtroom he ever had to see.

Six federal court jurors and two alternates watched Gould make his way to the enclosed area beside the judge's bench. They saw a man in his late sixties, sixty-seven to be precise. He wore a two-piece charcoal gray suit — that or blue, his lawyer had told him, no brown, no vests, and for God's sake none of those little thin-soled loafers that look like dancing shoes, wear lace-up shoes so the jury knows you're serious. It made him look serious, all right. Professorial. His high forehead topped by wavy gray hair and heavy dark-rimmed glasses hinted at the inventor his lawyer had described in his opening statement. "A very great inventor," he had said. A handsome man, too, it might be added, with a strong square face, a prominent nose, dimpled chin, and blue eyes that sparkled with humor. For all the buttoned-down sobriety of his attire, he looked like a man who had fun, a man you could like. He stood in the witness box and spoke the oath in a quiet voice roughened by a smoker's rasp.

"Do you promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

"I do."

Gould found the chair behind him and sat down. The three or four spectator rows were loosely filled. Here in Orlando, retirees with time on their hands jostled for seats at a good murder trial, crowding in in their loud shirts and the women with pale blue sweaters for the air conditioning and everybody with newspapers folded to the crossword puzzle for when the testimony got a little slow. None of them were here. But a couple of reporters had their pens poised to make notes. Lawyers representing firms like the one Gould was suing studied him, considering his potential effect on their employers. Shadow jurors were sprinkled here and there, people hired to gauge the way the trial was going. Gould caught the eye of his companion, Marilyn Appel, seated in the second row. She gave him a smile of support.

At the defense table, expensively dressed, sat Robby van Roijen, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses. Van Roijen was the latest in a long line of people to think they could sweep Gould under a rug and forget about him. But he kept crawling out and popping up again. It was uncanny, but Gould was persistent. To his left, U.S. District Court Judge Patricia C. Fawsett, fortyish and blond, a nice contrast with the somber robes, presided. She was the third judge in the ten-year-old case. All the paper in all the cases and other matters that focused on Gould — the depositions, the transcripts, the Patent Office pleadings, the files compiled on him by the FBI and branches of the military — had accounted for the killing of a hundred forests.

Gould's lawyer turned his way. Warren Goodrich was a courtly man with gleaming hair of snowy white and a voice like honey, perfumed with the kind of homespun, folksy talk that juries loved. Gould had seen many lawyers, too. Once he had counted, and stopped at around two hundred. Goodrich was a trial litigator and something of a legend in courtrooms around Florida, including Orlando, where the Control Laser Corporation had its base of operations. The patent lawyers who represented Gould had hired Goodrich for his facility with jury trials.

He had opened with a ringing statement designed to impress the jury with the importance of their jobs. "Ladies and gentlemen," he had said, "this case involves an amazing, magnificent invention of man. It involves a machine that has changed our lives. It has changed our industry, and changed our lives. A laser."

Gould invented the laser. Sat bolt upright in bed one night in November 1957, grabbed a notebook, and wrote down the essence of the "amazing, magnificent" machine that, as Goodrich said, had changed industry and lives as well as medicine and science. Then he went out and got his notebook notarized. Those were the last smart things he had done for quite a while. So here he sat thirty years later in what he hoped was the last of many courtrooms, hoping for a verdict that would force laser makers to pay him for the right to manufacture his invention. Which they were reluctant to do, and that was putting it mildly.

The stakes were high. Gould figured to win or lose millions, depending on the outcome of the trial. It was just about the money, at least that was what he said. But in his heart, he knew a victory could mean vindication, too.

Quite a few people refused to believe Gould had invented the laser. The thinking was, he couldn't have. To do something like that, you had to be a serious scientist, or at least be an acolyte to one. Poor Gordon Gould, he didn't even have a Ph.D. And acolyte had never been a good way to describe him. So you were stuck with the insupportable notion that a thirty-seven-year-old graduate student had grasped the key to one of the more significant inventions of all time. Meanwhile, working down the hall was a very serious scientist and professor who, by the way, obtained the first patent on a laser and went on to win a Nobel Prize — before somebody figured out that the laser in his patent wouldn't work. Gould couldn't count the times his own claims had been greeted by the sound of laughter. If they wanted to be nice, those serious scientists, they would let on that Gould was clever enough but just, well, not really serious; he doesn't publish in our journals, you see, he doesn't go to our meetings. If they didn't want to be nice — and this was usually the case — they would hint that Gould had stolen his ideas from the august professor down the hall and then tried to claim them as his own. Hardly anyone but Gould was willing to say that it might have been the other way around.

Gould settled in his chair, thinking that if he won this thing, it would not only fill his pockets and bring his long ordeal to an end, it would force the keepers of the grail to rewrite their scientific histories. He wanted that more than he was willing to admit.

The snowy-haired Goodrich stood near the railing of the witness stand and asked Gould to tell the jury a little bit about himself.

Gould leaned toward the microphone. He described his early life, his studies, his early attempts to make inventions, his return to graduate studies to learn physics when he realized he didn't know enough. He spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, until he began describing that November night in 1957.

Now something stirred. Gould, reliving the moment of his discovery, transformed in the witness box. He shed years of age and the lines in his face softened. His eyes shone and his voice crackled with new energy.

"It suddenly flashed into my mind that the amplification of light was going to do something quite remarkable, or could be made to do something remarkable," he said. "Instead of light going in every direction, you could generate a straight beam and concentrate the amplified light power into a beam of great intensity. You could focus that beam down to a tiny spot and get a fantastic intensity. And that thought was exciting. That immediately opened up my mind. My God, you could do things with this which have never been done before!"

Copyright © 2000 by Nick Taylor

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