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Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War Hardcover – January 15, 2000
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From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Taylor's writing style makes the science of the laser, so ubiquitous now in modern science and medicine, understandable and fascinating in this account of one man's 30-year battle for recognition and compensation. In 1957, Gordon Gould, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, got side-tracked from his doctorate thesis when he became enamored with his discovery of the LASER: Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation. Gould also felt competitive pressure from colleagues on a similar scientific path. But a misunderstanding of patent law cost Gould his momentum, and he found himself in a battle for the rights after one of his professors claimed the discovery as his own. Gould's background as a dabbler in Communist organizations was used against him to deny his access to work on his own invention. Armed with notarized notebooks bearing the first conceptual drawings of a laser, Gould fought a 30-year, ultimately successful, battle for his rights. Taylor brings obvious appreciation for the drama of scientific discovery and the process of seeking credit for technological innovation to this fascinating true story. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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EARLY YEARS. We learn that Gould's father worked for a magazine called Scholastic, that his family lived in Scarsdale, NY, and that in 1937 he got a scholarship to MIT, but instead attended Union College in Schenectady, NY. At Union, a teacher named Studer inspired Mr.Gould's interest in light. In 1941, Gould enrolled in Yale's doctor program in physics (at the same time, Gould's younger brother was a Yale chemistry undergrad). Gould earned a master's degree, then dropped out in 1944 to work for the Manhattan Project (at Broadway & 137th Street). The goal was to test isotope separation, which involved passing uranium hexafluoride gas through 4,000 membranes to isolate U-235. We learn of Gould's interest in females, including Ruth at Yale, a Quaker named Caroline, Glen from Virginia (pages 21-26), and several others. Unfortunately for Gould, Glen was interested in communism, and she inspired Mr.Gould to attend meetings of communists. This got him fired from the Manhattan Project and, for his entire career, Gould's inability to obtain security clearance prevented him from being cleared to work on government-funded projects for private companies.
MIRRORS. Then, Gould started work at a nearby mirror company (between Morton St. and Barrow St.). Mirror-making involved powdered chromium, aluminum powder, and silicon monoxide. Gould's job was to find out why the mirrors were wavy and blotchy. After 2 weeks, Gould figured out how to adjust certain filaments, and the result was perfect mirrors. This experience undoubtedly helped him later to invent the laser, because lasers involve translucent mirrors. At this time, Gould and Glen attended communist meetings, and they married in 1947.
COLUMBIA. Gould entered Columbia Univ.'s graduate program in physics, where his colleagues included Prof. Charles Townes, later to receive Nobel Prize in for inventing laser. Other folks at Columbia were Arthur Schawlow (in Feb. 1958, he got the same idea for a 2-mirror design that Gould thought of in Nov.1957, for the laser); Prof.Isodor Rabi (Nobel Prize in 1944 for vapor beam machine with magnets), Prof.Polykarp Kusch (Gould's graduate advisor and Nobel Prize winner in 1955 for discovering magnetic moment of electron). In 1950, Gould dumped his wife because of her commitment to communism (she was happy when N.Korea invaded S.Korea in 1950). In April 1954, Townes designed the first maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). The device involved separating ground state ammonia from excited ammonia. Gould's project with Prof.Kusch was to apply the maser to thallium. Gould succeeded, and acquired thallium enriched in metastable state (p. 56-59). Gould found a new sweetie, Ruth, a biophysics Ph.D., and married her in 1955). In summer of 1957, Gould got the idea of using optical pumping to amplify visible light waves (not just microwaves), that is, to apply the maser's principles to light waves. Townes got the same idea later on, in Sept. 1957. On Nov. 13, 1957, Gould invented the laser, which involved potassium (K) vapor as the medium, where K atoms are optically pumped to a high energy level by light from an external K arc lamp, where the atoms would give up their energy while coherently amplifying a light beam, and where the beam would bounce off mirrors at each end of the tube, growing into a powerful beam of pure color, and eventually break through a translucent mirror (this is where mirrors come in) at one end (p. 67-70). Gould voluntarily dropped out of grad school in March 1958, since Prof.Kusch wanted him to work on a boring project. Gould consulted a patent attorney in Jan.1958, but unfortunately, Gould made the fatal mistake of failing to realize that you could get a prophetic patent (where there were no working examples). Townes and Schawlow filed their laser patent on July 30, 1958 ("Maswers and Maser Communication System") (p. 79).
GOULD at TRG. Gould began work at TRG in Manhattan, where his project was atomic beam frequency standards, but at night Gould worked on laser calculations. Gould's boss at TRG was Dick Daly, but eventually TRG's president Larry Goldmuntz learned of Gould's laser, and in 1958, put Gould full-time on the laser project (p. 73-86). Gould filed his laser patent application on April 6, 1958 (U.S. Ser. No. 804,540), with the approval of Goldmuntz.
TRG won a laser contract and Gould continued at TRG, but was restricted in his access to data, because he failed to obtain security clearance (p. 96-114). On march 22, 1960, Schawlow and Townes got their patent, U.S. Pat. No. 2,929,922. In August 1959, Theodore Maiman made the first working laser (it contained a ruby rod). In 1960, Gould (still married to Ruth the biophysicist) began a tryst with Marcie Weiss, a security guard at TRG. Goldmuntz then let Marcie go, for fear that the U.S. government would revoke its contracts with TRG. Then Ruth sent Gould packing, and he obtained a bachelor pad. Ali Javan of Bell Labs made a continuous beam laser using helium metastable atoms (p. 125). We learn that Gould had preceded Javan with this invention, as demonstrated by Gould's earlier patent. Javan and William Bennett filed a patent together on a pulsed laser. In Dec. 1961, Gould had a breakthrough and Gould, Jacobs, and Rabinowitz (of TRG) published a paper on cesium vapor in a helium lamp (p. 131). March 1962 brought another breakthrough, where theybuilt the first optically pumped gas laser (unfortunately, the book fails to mention any patents arising from the Dec. 1, 1961 and March 1962 breakthroughs). Page 137-138 reveal Milton Zaret's invention of a laser eye surgery, which he perfected using rabbits and Gould's laser. At this point, Townes began work at MIT and Schawlow began a faculty position at Stanford.
PATENT INTERFERENCE. Regarding patents, on Bell Lab's side were attorneys Cave, Torsiglieri, Braunstein, and Kelley. On Gould's side were only 2 attorneys, Keegan and Overocker. Gould's earliest date showing conception was in 1957 lab notebook, which discussed the same elements as in Bell Labs' patent: (1) Potassium; (2) Pumping; (3) Cavity for radiation. The filing date of Schawlow and Townes was July 1958. Gould's filing date was later, April 1959. Thus, Gould had an uphill battle in the Interference Proceeding of proving earlier conception, enablement, and diligence. A problem was that Gould's lab notebooks failed to state that side walls of the cavity were transparent (p. 159), and Gould lost the Interference, and he also lost the appeal on the grounds that the instructions in his lab notebook were ambiguous (p. 173). At this point, Townes plus 2 Russians shared the Nobel Prize for the laser in 1964.
BROOKLYN POLY. TRG merged with Control Data Corp. of Minneapolis, MN, and Gould became slightly wealthy. In 1967, Gould left TRG for Brooklyn Poly, and took TRG's laser research team with him. Gould was full professor, even though he'd never completed his Ph.D. program at Columbia. At this time, Gould won a patent Interference against Fox and Kibler of Bell Labs. Gould's first grad student at Brooklyn Poly was Bob Chementi, who worked on copper vapor laser (p. 177), and the result was a laser that could scan photographs without destroying them (p. 193). Also, at this time Gould got another patent, U.S. Pat. No. 3,388,314, on June 11, 1968. At this time, Townes left MIT for U.C.Berkeley.
OPTELECOM. In 1973, Gould left Brooklyn Poly and began work at Optelecom, headed by Bill Culver, a guidance system company. Culver used lasers to guide missiles, and Gould's idea was to replace Culver's deuterated ammonia with carbon-13 methyl fluoride (p. 197). In 1977, Gould received U.S. Pat. No. 4,053,845 (October 1977). At this point, Gould was very happy, because newly issued patents had a term of 17 years from the date of issue, and this patent had been filed some18 years earlier. (If Gould had filed this patent in the year 1995 or later, this sort of stunt would have been impossible. For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, the patent term is 20 years from the filing date.) At Optelecom, Gould made an invention relating to geology -- optical fibers using neutron ulse generators to bombard rocks deep under the ground, where data represented the presence or absence of oil. Gould got 5 patents (p. 277). In 1981, Arthur Schawlow got a Nobel Prize, not for inventing the laswer, but for laser spectroscopy. (There is a typo on page 232. "Lynch pin" should be "linch pin.")
I also recommend the following book relating to inventions and patent law: The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876: The Elisha Gray-Alexander Bell Controversy and Its Many Players by A. Edward Evenson. As is the case with LASER, Mr.Evenson's book provides a dramatic book, having many cliff-hangers, while refraining from digressing into writing of a decorative or fictional nature.
Having talked to experts about this book, the book is accurate about the patent process and the book is fair about giving credit to others who Gould used to come up with the laser (principally, Townes, who invented the maser, a predecessor of the laser, which works with microwaves).
The book gives a good scorecard of who are the major players.
The terrors of a Patent Office "interference" practice comes to light, and the bias of bureaucracy when they want to dig in their heels and favor one side over the other, simply because of bureaucratic inertia and spite.
The only downside is the book had one passage that was repeated verbatim, which means it was not carefully proofed, at least the copy I had.
The book makes one factual mistake: it says that under the new law, with the term of a patent being not 17 years from when the patent issues but 20 years from when the patent is filed, would have avoided Gould's problem (he had to wait 30 years to get his patent, with a lot of uncertainty). Actually however, the Patent Office today still has the potential for what Gould's problem was: it's called "interference", when two inventors legally claim to have invented the same thing. This was the heart of Gould's problem, with the Patent Office taking sides with other inventors who filed before Gould even though Gould had invented certain aspects of the laser first (the critical amplifier portion of a laser). Even today the Patent Office has a 'first to invent' not a 'first to file' system, unlike the rest of the world, supposedly to protect the small inventor.