Gordon Gould’s Scientific “Patent” Method

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Amanda Francoeur

In 1957, Gordon Gould, an American physicist, was inarguably the first to coin the term “laser” and to write a complete explanation of its construction and application. If you haven’t heard of Gould before, you might imagine that the two feats would have earned him the title of inventor of the laser, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Gould’s effort to acquire a patent was a long and dispiriting endeavor that continued for 30 years.


Gordon Gould is known mainly for his 30-year endeavor to claim rights to the invention of the laser. He is pictured here in 1987 holding the patent for an optical amplifier, a key component in all lasers.

Step 1: Hypothesize

Gould received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and a master’s degree in optics and spectroscopy from Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He went to Columbia University in New York to work toward a doctorate in optical and microwave spectroscopy. At Columbia, where he met professor Charles Townes, inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), Gould used his knowledge of optical pumping to advance the technology.

The laser design used an optical resonator, a parallel arrangement of two highly reflective mirrors, which produced a very fine, continuous beam. The device differed from those produced by previous attempts because the gain medium could be manipulated within the cavity to create the necessary population inversion that would produce a more precise stream of light.

Gould arranged the data in a notebook, which he had notarized, titled “Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” and went on to try to build it.

Step 2: Experiment

Patent laws have been constantly changing since they were first established in the US in 1790. One of the earliest requirements was to include a working model of an invention with an application. A few years later, the law was dropped because of the excess time and trouble it took to evaluate each individual submission. Unfortunately for Gould, he believed that the US Patent and Trademark Office granted patents only to those who had an actual physical apparatus, so he immediately left Columbia, without his degree, with the goal of building a working laser.

He collaborated with a private company called TRG (Technical Research Group), which received funding from DARPA – the US military – to build the laser. The government declared the project classified, which meant that those working on it would need security clearance. However, Gould was unable to obtain clearance because of his association with the communist party, leaving him to sit on the sidelines while his colleagues worked. The setback resulted in technical obstacles that delayed the completion of the project and that ultimately hindered Gould’s chances of being the first to effectively create a laser. In the race to a patent, he was defeated first in 1960 by Theodore Maiman, recognized now as the original inventor of the laser, and, subsequently, by Townes.

Step 3: Litigate?

This turn of events led Gould and his research team down a tumultuous legal path in challenging Maiman’s and Townes’ patent agreements. In court, Gould established precedence based on his notarized notebook, but while that was being reviewed, more laser technologies were created and authorized, further separating Gould from the technology. Eventually, his evidence was turned down because he inadequately described the components needed to successfully create the laser. The technical difficulties that Gould and TRG experienced throughout the production of the laser also were cited. He never gave up his battle to claim exclusive rights to the invention of the laser, and he did receive patent rights in several other countries.

It wasn’t until 1977 that Gould, after leaving TRG, becoming a professor at what is now Polytechnic Institute of New York University and founding Optelecom (a manufacturer of fiber optic equipment), finally received recognition. By changing his claim from the laser as a whole to the optical amplifier – a necessary element in all lasers – Gould was granted Patent No. 4,053,845. This supplied him with royalties from numerous well-established companies that had grown throughout the 30-year period.

Following his success, Gould won many patents related to collisionally pumped laser amplifiers and laser applications, which earned him considerable reimbursement. In total he was issued 48 patents before his death in September 2005. So although he didn’t receive full entitlement, Gould was still able to devise a way to connect his initial discovery to those made after, identifying himself as a noteworthy scientist and inventor in the advancement of the laser.

Published: October 2008
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