Hard Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 28, 1915,
the son of Henry Keith Townes, an attorney, and Ellen (Hard) Townes.
He attended the Greenville public schools and then Furman University
in Greenville, where he completed the requirements for the Bachelor of
Science degree in physics and the Bachelor of Arts degree in Modern
Languages, graduating summa cum laude in 1935, at the age of 19.
Physics had fascinated him since his first course in the subject
during his sophomore year in college because of its "beautifully
logical structure". He was also interested in natural history while at
Furman, serving as curator of the museum, and working during the
summers as collector for Furman's biology camp. In addition,he was
busy with other activities, including the swimming team, the college
newspaper and the football band.
Townes completed work for the Master of Arts degree in Physics at Duke
University in 1936, and then entered graduate school at the California
Institute of Technology, where he received the Ph.D. degree in 1939
with a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins.
A member ofthe technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories from
1933 to 1947, Dr. Townes worked extensively during World War II in
designing radar bombing systems and has a number of patents in related
technology. From this he turned his attention to applying the
microwave technique of wartime radar research to spectroscopy, which
he foresaw as providing a powerful new tool for the study of the
structure of atoms and molecules and as a potential new basis for
controlling electromagnetic waves.
At Columbia University, where he was appointed to the faculty in 1948,
he continued research in microwave physics, particularly studying the
interactions between microwaves and molecules, and using microwave
spectra for the study of the structure of molecules, atoms, and
nuclei. In 1951, Dr. Townes conceived the idea of the maser, and a few
months later he and his associates began working on a device using
ammonia gas as the active medium. In early 1954, the first
amplification and generation of electromagnetic waves by stimulated
emission were obtained. Dr. Townes and his students coined the word
"maser" for this device, which is an acronym for microwave
amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. In 1958, Dr. Townes
and his brother-in-law, Dr. A.L. Schavlow, now of Stanford University,
showed theoretically that masers could be made to operate in the
optical and infrared region and proposed how this could be
accomplished in particular systems. This work resulted in their joint
paper on optical and infrared masers, or lasers (light amplification
by stimulated emission of radiation). Other research has been in the
fields of radio astronomy and nonlinear optics.
Having joined the faculty at Columbia University as Associate
Professor of Physics in 1948, Townes was appointed Professor in 1950.
He served as Executive Director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory
from 1950 to 1952 and was Chairman of the Physics Department from 1952
From 1959 to 1961, he was on leave of absence from Columbia University
to serve as Vice President and Director of Research of the Institute
for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization
operated by eleven universities.
In 1961, Dr. Townes was appointed Provost and Professor of Physics at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As Provost he shared with
the President responsibility for general supervision of the
educational and research programs of the Institute. In 1966, he became
Institute Professor at M.I.T., and later in the same year resigned
from the position of Provost in order to return to more intensive
research, particularly in the fields of quantum electronics and
astronomy. He was appointed University Professor at the University of
California in 1967. In this position Dr. Townes is participating in
teaching, research, and other activities on several campuses of the
University, although he is located at the Berkeley campus.
During 1955 and 1956, Townes was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright
Lecturer, first at the University of Paris and then at the University
of Tokyo. He was National Lecturer for Sigma Xi and also taught during
summer sessions at the University of Michigan and at the Enrico Fermi
International School of Physics in Italy, serving as Director for a
session in 1963 on coherent light. In the fall of 1963, he was Scott
Lecture at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Townes has served on a number of scientific committees advising
governmental agencies and has been active in professional societies.
He and his wife (the former Frances H.Brown; they married in 1941)
live at 1988 San Antonio Avenue, Berkeley, California. They have four
daughters, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Anderson, Carla Lumsden, and Holly.