When a Bronx candy store opened one winter morning two decades ago, a 37-year-old physicist rushed in and asked the owner - who also served as the neighborhood notary public - to apply the date and his seal to the pages of a worn, gray notebook. Fifteen of those pages were filled with a longhand proposal for a device to produce a revolutionary, concentrated beam of light the physicist named "a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation."
"All the pieces had suddenly come together and I saw in a flash how to make it work," recalls Gordon Gould, whose unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep one October 1957 night led to the start of a billion-dollar industry. "My wife and I lived in a little apartment, and I know I jumped up - I think I only had on my pajama tops - and I started writing it all down at the desk in the next room."
For Gould, a pleasant, chain-smoking habitual tinkerer, that night began an irony-filled quest for the development of the laser as well as a struggle for recognition as a father of the light that can be used to heal, destroy and communicate.
Several months ago, after twenty yars of legal wrestling, the U.S. Patent Office awarded the Washington based inventor a license for the laser, entitling him to ask royalties of hundreds of companies such as GTE and Bell Labs that make regular use of lasers. And in a ceremony today, Gould will be named inventor of the year by Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps. Gordon Gould, it appears, is about to win fame and riches.
When he was growing up in Pittsburgh, as the first of three sons born to the editor of Scholastic Magazine, young Gordon disassembled with fascination the Erector Set toy buildings his mother built for him. Soon Gordon was doing the construction while his mother assumed the wrecker's duties. From the first day he thought about a career, Gould knew he wanted to be an inventor.
His degrees in physics came easily from Union College, Yale and - following a stint during World War II working on the secret Manhattan Project that developed America's A-bomb - Gould began work toward a Ph.D. at Columbia. There, in the mid-1950s, he studied microwave spectroscopy, the interaction of atoms with radio waves commonly called "microwaves." That dovetailed nicely with his previous work at Yale studying optical spectroscopy, or the interaction of atoms with light. Anybody who intended to invent the laser needed knowledge of both fields.
The director of Columbia's radiation laboratory in which Gould worked was Dr. Charles Townes, inventor in 1951 of the MASER, an acronym for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The concept of stimulating powerful wavelengths of light, instead of only radio signals, was "very much in the air," according to a Science magazine article on the subject. Gould's late-night inspiration to perfect the process preceded by a year the publication of a paper on the subject by Townes and his brother-in-law, Arthur Schawlow. But it was the latter team who patented the concept first; though Gould had made certain his original notes were legally dated by the candy store notary, a visit to a patent attorney's office left him with the mistaken impression that he had to have a working laser in hand before receiving a patent.
More bad luck followed.
In hopes of receiving the necessary money to build that working model, Gould joined a small New York research firm, TRG, and applied for a $300,000 military contract.
The Department of Defense seized on the concept of a "death ray," a shaft of light so intense it could penetrate a tank's armor, not to mention sizzle a human as effortlessly as a strip of bacon; instead of $300,000, the military gave Gould and TRG $1 million. But the government decreed the project classified, stamping Gould's notebooks secret. And a bit of Gould's past returned to haunt him.
During his first marriage, Gould and his wife had attended a Marxist study group run by an FBI informer. Although Gould had renounced Marxism following the 1948 Czechoslovakian coup ("That knocked the blinders off my eyes and shortly thereafter my wife and I parted ways"), he had lost his Manhattan Project job because of his suspicious leanings. And now the military denied him a security clearance.
Gordon Gould became an outsider unable to even look in as his notebooks became the working basis for other TRG scientists assigned to develop his beloved invention.
Gould is sitting in the modest Gaithersburg office of the ten-person firm he helped start in 1973. Optelecom has government contracts to develop lasers for night vision illumination and has also developed fiber optical cables for use in the next generation of heavy assualt weapons. A portable missile can trail the tiny, clear cable connected to a TV camera in the nose of the weapon. From a remote position, a soldier can steer the missile accurately.
Now, a green sport shirt buttoned to the neck, wavy hair and hands that always hold a low-nicotine cigarette, Gould looks more the professor than the outraged inventor.
"Certainly I felt a terrible sense of frustration," he says. "I'm a person of strong emotion, but I don't hate people. It's an objective frustration instead of an emotional one . . ."
He pauses, then adds tightly: "Oh, hell, there was emotion there, too, what am I kidding myself for?"
Rage would be understandable. After his dash to the candy store, Gould began devoting all his spare time to the laser, a point that would later aid him with his many legal appeals for patents. He quit his bridge club. He gave his sailboat to a brother. His second marriage began to suffer and eventually ended. He neglected his Ph.D. work, and Gould still does not have that advanced degree.
While Gould worked on other projects for TRG, his employer spent $250,000 pursuing the rights to the laser patent. In 1970 the firm was acquired by Control Data, and Gould reacquired his patent rights and proceeded to spend another $100,000 in legal fees to try to establish his claim as the first off the laser line.
In 1974, his resources nearly exhausted, Gould teamed with a New York technology licensing firm, Refac, which took on legal adversaries as huge as Bell Laboratories in exchange for a 50-50 royalty split agreement.
Last October Gould won. Now Refac is holding, well, a kind of founder's day sale, offering companies manufacturing lasers covered by Gould's patents a royalty structure of 3.5 percent of gross sales if they agree within ninety days of notification by Refac.
While the heads of some laser firms are happy to see an old friend's vindication, others aren't thrilled at the prospect of paying him a percentage of their sales. (Recalcitrant companies face lawsuits, and the industry is watching a crucial suit Refac recently brought on behalf of Gould against a Floria firm.) One reason for the industry's displeasure: a patent runs for seventeen years, and just a couple of years ago manufacturers stopped having to pay royalties on the patent granted in 1958 to Mssrs. Townes and Schawlow.
For Gould, who is now 57, the twenty-year delay has at least one benefit: "Suppose I had realized all I had to do was write a patent application instead of making a working laser," he says. "The patent would have run out by now. But instead it's just beginning."
The $1 billion laser industry could grow to five times that size by 1984, and Gould's royalty checks should keep pace. He makes $45,000 a year as vice president of Optelecom, and he intends to apply his eventual riches to research, though a sailboat with a berth in the Caribbean will be a high priority.
"I get my biggest satisfaction of research," says Gould. "My most important thing right now is, I have ideas that will lead to cost-competitve ways of generating electric power from solar energy. I'd spend most of my money so I can do what I want to do instead -" and he says this with the smile of a free man " - instead of what the Department of Defense thinks it needs."