How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the LaserRussians were pioneers in the development of lasers, today a multi-billion dollar industry. Two of them, Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov, won the Nobel Prize in 1964, along with the American Charles Townes, for the invention of lasers and masers. Even much earlier, in the nineteen thirties and forties the Russian scientist Valentin Fabrikant laid the foundations of physical optics and gas discharges that led to the development of lasers.

Curiously, the history of lasers illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of both the American and Soviet systems, since political and economic obstacles were present in both systems and slowed development in both countries. However, investor interest and commercial competition were much stronger in the United States than in the Soviet Union, leading to the development of important American laser start-up companies. Today no Russian manufacturer of lasers is a major player internationally.


In April 1955 a physics professor at Columbia University in New York City named Charles Townes journeyed to a scientific meeting in Cambridge, England, where he wanted to talk about the research he had been doing on stimulated microwave radiation. About a year earlier Townes, working together with several graduate students in Pupin Hall at Columbia, had successfully demonstrated such radiation in a device in which ammonia molecules were bombarded with microwaves. The result was an output of only several billionths of a watt, but it showed not only that the device worked but that Townes had made a breakthrough.

Together with his students over lunch after the momentous event, Townes struggled to come up with a name for the device, and settled on “MASER,” or “Microwave Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Townes’ ammonia MASER was the ancestor of a quickly-following generation of devices, including, a few years later, the more ambitious “LASER,” or “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Lasers and masers would become a multi-billion dollar industry and would be at the heart of a multitude of modern electronic gadgets that practically everyone uses today.

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

After his achievement Townes sent a short paper announcing it to the leading journal Physical Review but at the time of his trip to England he had not yet written a thorough theoretical description of what he had done. Therefore, he was astounded in Cambridge when a Soviet physicist named Alexander Prokhorov, speaking excellent English, preceded him in the conference by delivering a paper describing the theory of an ammonia maser, exactly the device Townes had used. Townes had never met Prokhorov before and did not dream at that moment that he would eventually share a Nobel Prize with him and his student Nikolai Basov for the development of lasers. Townes’ first concern in Cambridge was to assert his claim to his invention and not yield it to Prokhorov. After Prokhorov had finished his report Townes stood up and announced, “Well, that is very interesting, and we have one of these working.” He then described his recent work with an ammonia maser.

When people began to study more closely the work that Russian scientists had done in the field of physical optics and gas discharges they were amazed by what they found. Theodore Maiman, the American who built the first laser in 1960, later observed, “It was the Russian physicist A. V. Fabricant (sic) who first had the vision to propose the concept of a laser in 1940.” Fabrikant stated the principles of a laser in a doctoral dissertation of 1939, and in 1951 he obtained for his work an “author’s certificate” (often called a “patent” in the West, but, as we will see, something very different from a Western patent). He not only elaborated the theory but he was the first to observe experimentally the amplification of optical radiation using a mixture of mercury vapor and hydrogen. He was a true pioneer. Maiman even thought Fabrikant should have received the Nobel Prize instead of Basov, Prokhorov, and Townes. He said that when the Nobel Committee chose the trio over Fabrikant that they “did not do their homework. It would have made more sense to recognize the Russian physicist Fabricant.”

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

“Authors’ Certificates” in the Soviet Union carried no monopoly or financial rights for Russian inventors; they were merely honorific recognition, although sometimes they came with a modest one-time financial bonus. The important aspect of them is that they gave inventors no ability to market and financially benefit from their creations. And, as a matter of fact, such benefit could not have been farther from Fabrikant’s mind. He admitted that he “did not pay attention to the practical value of his idea.” He was a typical Russian intelligent , an erudite conversationalist, a person who lived in a world of ideas. Business was simply not his concern.

The development of the laser in the United States and the Soviet Union displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems and the close connections of both to military interests. In the United States, private inventors and commercial companies such as Hughes Aircraft and AT&T were promoting laser research and hoping for patents and commercial benefits. Later, nasty patent disputes dragged on for decades among these people and organizations. Since the laser was the object of attention of military circles, who thought it might become a powerful weapon, questions of secrecy and security clearance soon arose, with effects that actually delayed research. In the Soviet Union, the centralized research system favored high priority projects such as laser research and the Soviet military quickly became involved, supplying necessary funds. When in later years I interviewed Prokhorov in his Moscow lab, he proudly announced that not only had he invented the laser, but also he had discovered a “general effect” in physics. I asked what the “general effect” was; he replied “military generals are very interested in my physics.”

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

As the recipient of a Nobel Prize for work on masers and lasers Charles Townes is today most often cited as the inventor of the laser, but priority in this achievement is still hotly disputed by physicists, commercial companies, and historians of science and technology. Other candidates for the accolades, along with Townes, were his brother-in-law Arthur Schawlow, Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories, the ambitious inventor Gordon Gould, four different groups of physicists working at Bell Laboratories, and several groups in the Soviet Union. These scientists later sniped at each other for decades over priority.

On May 16, 1960, Theodore Maiman, working at Hughes Research Laboratories at Malibu, California, first operated a laser, one based on a synthetic ruby crystal. Soviet researchers were very close behind. Two groups, one at the State Optical Institute in Leningrad and the other at the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow, were already experienced in the field, and as soon as they heard of Maiman’s achievement they attempted to duplicate it. The Leningrad group, headed by D. D. Khazov, succeeded on June 2, 1961, and the Moscow team, composed of M. D. Galanin, A M. Leontovich, and Z. A. Chizhikova, did the same thing a few weeks later, on September 15.

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

The big difference between Maiman and his Soviet competitors is what they did AFTER building lasers. Maiman’s company, Hughes Aircraft, took out a patent, which later became very lucrative. Maiman, deprived of financial benefit since as an employee of Hughes he was required to give the company patent rights, became disgruntled, left the company, and became president of his own laser company. None of the Soviet researchers did anything similar, nor could they, since the Soviet Union had neither patents nor private companies. More importantly, it never even occurred to the Soviet researchers to try to commercialize their work.

The history of the early development of lasers in the United States and the Soviet Union is very revealing, demonstrating clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. The Soviet system stymied innovation and commercial development, but the American system possessed barriers to innovation as well. Particularly interesting is the case of Gordon Gould, an American researcher who ran headon into the political problems of the United States stemming from its competition with the Soviet Union.

Gould, born in 1920, earned a master’s degree in physics at Yale University. He was involved in the Manhattan Project but was dismissed there because of his association with leftwing organizations. Gould went through a radical period and, along with his even more radical first wife, joined Communist organizations. After about 1950, however, he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union. He came to Columbia University in 1949 to work for a Ph.D. in physics under Polykarp Kusch, a close associate of Charles Townes and an eventual Nobel Prize winner himself.

Gould differed from Kusch and Townes, however, in that he envisioned himself more as an inventor than an academic physicist (he never finished his Ph.D. and his hero was Thomas Edison, not professors). Despite his leftwing inclinations, he wanted to get rich from his inventions. He became very interested in masers and optics and often talked to Townes about his research. It was actually Gould who first coined the term “laser”; Townes called the device he was working on an “optical maser.”

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

In 1957 Gould secretly compiled a notebook combining the research emerging in the Columbia lab with his own fertile ideas and then had it notarized (each page separately, illustrating how important he thought the notebook was) at a local store where the proprietor was a notary public who understood nothing about the contents. That notebook would be a basic document in the later patent disputes.

The next year, 1958, Gould left graduate school and joined a small private company, TRG (Technical Research Group) and pushed his laser project. In 1959 the company was successful in getting a large grant for research on lasers from ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, a government organization pushing projects with military potential). On the one hand, this development was a great achievement for Gould; on the other hand, it became the source of problems he confronted the rest of his life. ARPA insisted on classifying the research, but Gould, because of his radical background, could not get security clearance. Soon the ridiculous situation developed in which the person who was considered the leader of company research in lasers – Gordon Gould – was not permitted in the laboratories where the research, now classified, was being done. In fact, Gould’s office was placed across the street from the lab, and he was not permitted to cross the boundary.

Although no one can predict what would have happened if this absurd situation had not arisen, most people agree that it slowed down research progress. Gould, who paid little attention to rules, matched the deadly foolishness imposed by the government on his lab by having an affair with the woman officer in the company who was in charge of security and top secret materials. When that compromising fact was learned, the woman was fired; Gould was not. On another occasion Gould stole a laser from the classified section after hours. But he was still valued for his skill as an inventor (he worked on many projects other than lasers, including contact lenses and dental devices).

Gould never received security clearance although he tried for years. Eventually he became an idiosyncratic rebel, convinced the establishment was against him, and he adopted the strategy of multiple patent suits, trying to get royalties from the booming laser industry. Townes, a proper Southern gentleman, and others believed that Gould was trying to take credit for work done by others. Gould, in return, accused Townes of using his ideas.

At first Gould was unsuccessful in his patent litigations but eventually won a crucial suit and ended up making millions of dollars from the laser industry. The bizarre result of Gould’s adventures is that the man who was a radical with communist sympathies in his youth ended up in his older years as the most successful capitalist of the early laser researchers. Other researchers resented his success, which they considered unjustified; Maiman called Gould’s winning patent suit “a travesty of justice.” He had little better to say of Townes, who was, in his opinion, a part of the “old boy establishment” which would not make room for an industrial scientist who had not come from a prestigious Eastern university.

How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the Laser

Alexander Prokhorov, leader of Soviet research in the field, was also a man of very strong opinions and he did not shrink from enforcing them on others. Many stories have been told about his authoritarianism and one of them was so dramatic that, although I had heard it many times, I had trouble believing it. Then in 2007 the Minister of Science and Education of Russia, Andrei Fursenko, repeated the story in a major Russian newspaper. The story was this: In the nineteen fifties Prokhorov’s lab at the Lebedev Physics Institute was doing rather conventional research which did not seem to be leading toward anything exciting. Prokhorov decided it was necessary to move in a different direction, to start working on induced radiation of gases. His assistants in the lab did not wish to do so, as they were working on their dissertations and did not want disruption. Prokhorov gave them a month to rethink their positions. When they refused, he took the radical action of going through the laboratory with a hammer and destroying the instruments that were necessary for their current research. He then brought in new instruments and instructed the assistants to work on what he told them. A tremendous scandal ensued, half of the researchers left, but eventually the remaining ones followed Prokhorov on the work that eventually resulted in a Nobel Prize.

This personality trait could have negative as well as positive results. Prokhorov was a communist, belonging to the Party since 1950, and a proud Soviet patriot. He could not countenance political disloyalty. Although he knew the Soviet dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov well, he strongly disagreed with his opinions. When Sakharov published an article criticizing Soviet foreign policy Prokhorov, along with three other colleagues, wrote a letter to the major Soviet newspaper Izvestiia castigating Sakharov in the strongest possible terms, calling him a traitor without honor. This scurrilous attack badly damaged Prokhorov’s reputation in the West. When Prokhorov came to San Francisco to give a paper, the American scientist Andrew Sessler marched in front of the podium with a sign which read “Prokhorov – great scientist, lousy human being.”

When one considers what an important part Russian scientists played in the development of the laser a striking fact is how unimportant Russia is in the worldwide laser industry. By the year 2000 approximately $200 billion worth of lasers and laser systems had been sold. Yet the Russian share of the world laser market at this time, 36 years after two Russians and an American were awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of the maser and laser, was merely 1% to 1.5%. The largest laser manufacturers at that time were American. No Russian manufacturer was a major player.


How We Barely Beat Soviet Russia to Inventing the LaserExcerpted with permission from Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete? by Loren Graham from The MIT Press

[Additional Images - Top Image: Pavel L Photo and Video, Soviet Author Certs: IMNPA Engineering, Maimon Laser: Guy Immega / Wikipedia]