27.02.2020 / Athanassios Kaliudis

Gould took the money

Physicist Gordon Gould failed to file a patent for his laser concept in 1957. Thirty years later, that mistake made him a rich man.

When Gordon Gould put down the phone one day in October 1957, he knew he had no time to lose. He had just spoken to Charles Townes, the inventor of the maser and Gould’s colleague at Columbia University’s physics department, who had called to find out what progress Gould had made on the thallium lamp. Gould was left in no doubt that, just like him, Townes was on the verge of inventing the laser. Over the next few weeks, Gould frantically scribbled in his notebook, filling hundreds of pages with information on how to make a viable laser. On November 16, 1957 he took the notebook to a confectionery store owner – a friend of his who also had a side job as a notary – and had it notarized. He did not, however, prepare a paper for publication in a specialist journal. This turned out to be a mistake, because Townes and Arthur Schawlow did exactly that in 1958.  Gould’s opportunity for glory was gone. And so, it seemed, were the financial rewards, because Townes and Schawlow also filed a patent for the laser.

Tenaciousness helps

Gould missed that opportunity, too, because he mistakenly believed that he could only do so once he had built a working laser. The first person to achieve that was Theodore Maiman in 1960. Gould went to court, determined to prove that he had invented the laser, but he lost the case in 1965. Vowing not to give up, Gould continued the fight from a different angle: instead of attempting to lay claim to the laser in its entirety, he decided to limit his patient applications to the optically pumped laser amplifier and a variety of applications that covered virtually every aspect of laser material processing. He battled on – and in 1977 und 1979 the court finally ruled in his favor. Numerous laser manufacturers had sprung up by this time, but they refused to pay royalties to license the technology. Gould dragged them to court one by one and finally won an enforcement victory in 1987.

His failure made him a rich man

If Gould had patented his idea for a laser in 1957, he wouldn’t have found it very profitable. That’s because relatively few lasers were built and sold over the subsequent 17 years, which was the term of a U.S. patent at the time. But the way things worked out, Gould ended up holding his patents through the 1980s and 1990s, right in the middle of the first boom in industrial laser material processing – and that made him a rich man. Townes, Schawlow and Maiman took the fame. But Gould took the money.

Gordon Gould
Gordon Gould

Gordon Gould (1920 - 2005) was an American physicist who is often credited with the invention of the laser. Gould is best known for his thirty-year fight with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to obtain patents for the laser and related technologies. He was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991- an honor that only can be dued to patent holders of highly significant technologies.


Athanassios Kaliudis Spokesperson TRUMPF Laser Technology

TRUMPF Media Relations, Corporate Communications

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