In 1951, physicist Charles Townes was sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C., frantically writing on the back of an envelope. It was a “eureka” moment— his synapses had finally fired in just the right way to lift the fog and reveal a direction. For years Dr. Townes had been studying and working with electromagnetic waves, and while taking a break on a park bench, it had finally come to him—the equation for the MASER.
Charles Townes was born in Greenville on July 28, 1915. He graduated from Greenville High at the age of 15 and attended Furman University, where he earned degrees in both physics and modern languages. Fascinated by what he called the “beautifully logical structure” of physics, Townes went on to earn a master of arts degree in physics from Duke University in 1936, and a Ph.D. in 1939 from the California Institute of Technology.
During the Second World War, Townes worked on the technical staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories developing radar-bombing systems. This led to an interest in microwave technology, which Townes felt had powerful potential in the study and control of electromagnetic waves. Townes’s research continued at Columbia University, where he joined the faculty as an associate professor of physics in 1948. It was during his time at Columbia that Townes first conceived of the idea of the “maser,” a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through stimulated emission, which was based on a principle proposed by Albert Einstein in 1917.
For his research and development of MASER technology, Dr. Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1964, an honor he shared with Nicolay Gennadiyevich Basov and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov, who had worked independently in Russia. In the subsequent years, Townes continued his research, serving as provost and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later as university professor at the University of California.
In 2005, Townes was awarded the Templeton Prize for his decades-long work advocating for the convergence of science and religion. Townes is the only figure other than Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama to win both a Templeton Prize and a Nobel Prize.
Townes’s “eureka” moment for how the maser could actually work is depicted in a bronze statue near Falls Park in Greenville. The statue honoring Dr. Townes was unveiled in the spring of 2006 at a ceremony attended by Townes, his wife Francis, and more than 200 family and friends.