Charles H. Townes, a visionary physicist whose research led to the development of the laser, making it possible to play CDs, scan prices at the supermarket, measure time precisely, survey planets and galaxies, and even witness the birth of stars, died on Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 99.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Linda Rosenwein.
In 1964, Dr. Townes and two Russians shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on microwave-emitting devices, called masers, and their light-emitting successors, lasers, which have transformed modern communications, medicine, astronomy, weapons systems and daily life in homes and workplaces.
One of the most versatile inventions of the 20th century, the laser amplifies waves of stimulated atoms that shoot out as narrow beams of light, to read CDs and bar codes, guide missiles, cut steel, perform eye surgery, make astronomical measurements and carry out myriad other tasks, from transmitting a thousand books a second over fiber optic lines to entertaining crowds with light shows.
The technological revolution spawned by lasers, laying foundations for much of the gadgetry and scientific knowledge the world now takes for granted, was given enormous momentum by the discoveries of Dr. Townes and — because almost nothing important in science is done in isolation — by the contributions of colleagues and competitors.
Thus, Dr. Townes shared his Nobel with Nikolai G. Basov and Aleksandr M. Prokhorov, of the Lebedev Institute for Physics in Moscow, whom he had never met. It was Dr. Townes and Dr. Arthur L. Schawlow who wrote the 1958 paper “Infrared and Optical Masers,” describing a device to produce laser light, and secured a patent for it. A graduate student, R. Gordon Gould, came up with insights on how to build it, and named it a laser, for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. And it was Dr. Theodore H. Maiman, a physicist with Hughes Aircraft in California, who built the first operational laser in 1960.
Over six decades, Dr. Townes developed radar bombing systems and navigation devices during World War II, advised presidents and government commissions on lunar landings and the MX missile system, verified Einstein’s cosmological theories, discovered ammonia molecules at the center of the Milky Way and created an atomic clock that measured time to within one second in 300 years.
He moved easily from lab to classroom to government policy-making groups: with Bell Laboratories for nearly a decade when it was the world’s most innovative scientific organization; with Columbia University for more than 20 years, when he achieved his most important breakthroughs; and with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a research center that advised the Pentagon on weapons and defense systems in the Cold War.
Like most scientific researchers delving into unknown realms, Dr. Townes had not aimed to invent devices that would become laser printers or supermarket scanners, let alone technologies that would put movies on discs or revolutionize eye surgery.
He was interested in molecular structures and the behavior of microwaves — theoretically as a way to measure time with unprecedented accuracy, but more tangibly because the Pentagon, which partly funded his work at Columbia University’s Radiation Laboratory, wanted better communications and radar systems using shorter wavelengths to reach greater distances.
He had an “a-ha!” moment. Sitting on a park bench in Washington one April morning in 1951, pondering how to stimulate molecular energy to create shorter wavelengths, he conceived of a device he called a maser, for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. It would use molecules to nudge other molecules, and amplify their thrust by getting them to resonate like tuning forks and line up in a powerful beam.
He and two graduate students, James P. Gordon and H. J. Zeiger, built his maser in 1953 and patented their creation. It was the first device operating on the principles of the laser, although it amplified microwave radiation rather than infrared or visible light radiation.
Five years later, Dr. Townes and Dr. Schawlow, who was his brother-in-law and would win the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on laser spectroscopy, drew a blueprint for a laser. They called it an optical maser, a term that never caught on, and through Bell Laboratories they secured the first laser patent in 1959, a year before Dr. Maiman’s first working model.
Despite their patent, they profited little. Both were bound to Bell Labs, Dr. Schawlow as an employee and Dr. Townes as a consultant. Dr. Gould, the former graduate student, was denied a laser patent in 1959, but in 1977 won a long court fight against the Townes-Schawlow patent and received some royalties. It was the entrepreneurs, however, who grew rich on laser products.
Charles Hard Townes was born in Greenville, S.C., on July 28, 1915, one of six children of Ellen Hard Townes and Henry Townes, a lawyer. Charles, a brilliant student of wide interests, including entomology and ornithology, graduated from the local high school in 1931, when he was 15. (In Greenville, he was honored in 2006 with a public statue, depicting him on the park bench when he had his maser brainstorm.)
At Furman University in Greenville, he majored in physics and modern languages, and was curator of the college museum and a member of the band, glee club, swimming team and newspaper staff. He graduated valedictorian with two bachelor’s degrees in 1935 at age 19. Focusing on physics, he earned a master’s degree at Duke University in 1937 and a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology in 1939.
He joined Bell Laboratories in 1939 at its Murray Hill, N.J., headquarters and developed wartime radar bombing and navigational systems. He later studied radio astronomy and microwave spectroscopy as a means of controlling electromagnetic waves.
In 1941, Dr. Townes married Frances Brown. She survives him, as do their four daughters, Ms. Rosenwein, Ellen Townes-Anderson, Carla Kessler and Holly Townes; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In 1948, he was named the executive director of the Radiation Laboratory at Columbia. Two years later, he became a full professor, and from 1952 to 1955 was the head of Columbia’s physics department. He also lectured abroad on Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships.
Dr. Townes was often in the news in the 1950s and ’60s under headlines that seemed like science fiction: “Bell Shows Beam of ‘Talking’ Light,” “Man Shines a Light on the Moon,” “Man Listens for Life on Worlds Afar.”
On leave from Columbia, he directed research at the Institute for Defense Analyses from 1959 to 1961, then became provost and taught at M.I.T. He joined the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 and retired in 1986. He and other Nobel laureates backed a nuclear test ban treaty in 1999 and, in 2003, opposed an American war in Iraq without wide international support.
Besides more than 125 scientific papers, he wrote “Microwave Spectroscopy” (1955, with Dr. Schawlow) and two memoirs, “Making Waves” (1995) and “How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist” (2002).
President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science in 1982, and in 2005 he received the Templeton Prize for contributions to spiritual understanding.
Calling himself a Protestant Christian, Dr. Townes saw science and religion as compatible, saying there was little difference between a scientific revelation, like his maser brainstorm, and a religious one.
“Understanding the order of the universe and understanding the purpose in the universe are not identical,” he acknowledged in a paper in 1966, “but they are not very far apart.”