Buy from Amazon
Reviews elsewhere on the web:
American Scientist

Charles Townes

How the laser happened

Lasers are to be found everywhere today, but when the proposal of stimulated emission was developed, there was little idea of what it would lead to - it looked like it would just be a way of improving microwave sources. In How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist Charles Townes tells the story.

Townes tells of his early life and interest in science. In World War II he bacame involved in the development of radar, and from then he was looking for ways of producing microwaves of shorter wavelength. When he thought up the maser, he was discouraged from wasting time on such a dubious idea, but he stuck with it and built one, and over time everyone else saw the benefits. The book goes on to tell of the subsequent development of the laser, of the patent battles over its invention, and of Townes's study of lasing in interstellar clouds.

The book is an autobiography rather than a history of the laser - you might want to look elsewhere if your interested in the early ideas about stimulated emission. What I found most interesting about this book was how Townes responded to the career choices he faced. Should he try to stay in academia, or could he do better working for a business. Was giving advise to the government his duty, or was it 'selling out'? I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in such questions.