Born July 28, 1915, in Greenville, Charles H. Townes graduated from Furman University in 1935, earning a Bachelor of Science in physics and a Bachelor of Arts in modern languages. He completed a master’s degree in physics at Duke University in 1936 and in 1939 received a Ph.D. in physics at the California Institute of Technology. He was a staff member of Bell Laboratories from 1939 to 1947, then successively associate professor of physics, professor and chairman of the physics department at Columbia University between 1948 and 1961. From 1959 to 1961, he was in Washington as vice president and director of research of the Institute for Defense Analysis. He was provost and institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1961 to 1965 and university professor at the University of California from 1967 to the present. In July 1986 he became university professor emeritus and in 1994 professor in the graduate school.
Townes’ principal scientific work was in microwave spectroscopy, nuclear and molecular structure, quantum electronics, radio astronomy and infrared astronomy. He held the original patent for the maser and with Arthur Schawlow the original laser patent. He received the Nobel Prize in 1964 “for fundamental work in quantum electronics which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”
At the University of California, Townes returned to full-time research and teaching and pursued new interests in astrophysics. His work there in radio astronomy resulted in the first detection of polyatomic molecules in interstellar clouds and the use of molecular spectra to characterize these dark clouds, now an important astronomical field. In the infrared region, he has worked primarily on high spectral and spatial resolution for astronomical observations. Much of this work has been directed towards understanding the galactic center. Since 1988, Townes had been using a pair of moveable telescopes for obtaining very high angular resolution of astronomical objects at infrared wavelengths by spatial interferometry. A third telescope for this system has now been installed and provides phase closure.
During much of his career, Townes had been active as a government adviser. He was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1965 to 1969 and vice chairman of that group during the second half of his term. He was chairman of the technical advisory committee for the Apollo program until shortly after the first successful lunar landing. More recently, he has chaired committees on Strategic Weapons and the MX missile.
Townes had been active in the National Academy of Science’s contacts with China, its work on arms control and its meetings with representatives of the Soviet Academy. He also had an active role in helping to formulate advice given by the Papal Academy to the Pope on issues of peace and the control of nuclear weapons.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Townes received the 1982 National Medal of Science. Townes was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of London, the Max Planck Society, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame. He received the National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize and the John J. Carty Medal, the National Academy of Engineers’ Founders Award and the Stuart Ballentine Medal of the Franklin Institute (twice). Other awards included the Rumford Premium of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the C.E.K. Mees Medal of the Optical Society of America, the Medal of Honor of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Plyler Prize of the American Physical Society, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal and the Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society. Among Townes’ international awards are the Thomas Young Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society (England), the Wilhelm Exner Award (Austria), the 1979 Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, the Lomonosov Medal of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Rabindranath Tagore Award of India, the Karl Schwarzschild Medal of German-speaking countries and the 2005 Templeton Prize and the 2006 Vannevar Bush medal. He also held numerous honorary degrees.
Townes married Frances H. Brown in 1941 and they had four daughters. Townes passed away on January 27, 2015 in Oakland, California.