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Charles H. Townes

by Susan J. Ainsworth
March 23, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 12

Credit: Courtesy of Charles H. Townes
Picture of Charles H. Townes.
Credit: Courtesy of Charles H. Townes

Charles H. Townes, 99, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics, died on Jan. 27, in Oakland, Calif.

Born in Greenville, S.C., Townes earned a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in modern languages from Furman University in 1935, an M.A. in physics at Duke University in 1936, and a Ph.D. in physics from California Institute of Technology in 1939.

He immediately joined the technical staff at Bell Labs in New Jersey. In 1948, Townes accepted a position as associate professor of physics at Columbia University, where he helped develop the maser—a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

In 1958, Townes and his brother-in-law, Arthur Schawlow, a Stanford University professor who would receive the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics, showed theoretically that masers could operate in the optical and infrared region. That work resulted in an optical maser, or laser—an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for work in quantum electronics that led to the creation of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.

In 1961, Townes was appointed provost and professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.In 1967, Townes was named University Professor at UC Berkeley, where he focused on the field of IR astronomy.

He served on multiple government panels; was a member of many organizations; and received numerous awards, including the 1982 National Medal of Science.

Townes is survived by his wife, Frances; daughters, Holly, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Townes-Anderson, and Carla Kess­ler; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Obituary notices of no more than 300 words may be sent to Susan J. Ainsworth at and should include an educational and professional history.


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