Last week at ICALEO in Anaheim, the 50th anniversary of the first working laser was celebrated officially by the Laser Institute of America at a special closing plenary session, Celebrating 50 Years of Laser. During the week at ICALEO participants took advantage of the presence of numbers of technology pioneers to informally exchange reminiscences of the early days. I almost wish that I was carrying a recorder to save for posterity some of the anecdotes that were being shared.
I had the great pleasure of sitting with Nobel Laureate Charles Townes in the lounge atop one of the hotel towers and together watching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean, while sharing a glass or two of wine.
Charlie, as he likes to introduce himself, remains a thoroughly down-to earth individual who carries his fame easily. At a rather advanced age — he turned 95 in July — he remains both inquisitive and entertaining. While he freely regales with anecdotes, he also has a deep curiosity for what you do. He was especially interested in the beginnings of the industrial laser business, which in those early days was far removed from the lofty academic world he lived and worked in. Although we travelled in different circles over the years, we shared many acquaintances who are among those who were the backbone of a developing business sector.
Charlie was interested in my comments on the shifting fortunes of the industrial laser world with Asia, led by China, as the main market driver. Sensing his interest in the commercial aspects of laser technology I asked if, in those early days, there was much talk about taking the product to market. He allowed that it may have been part of conversations, especially in his interactions with Bell Labs, but that he was a physicist with physicist’s curiosity about technology not markets.
The day after this pleasant interlude, I saw Charlie hustling through the Orange County Airport, towing his suitcase, passing through hordes of people lined up at a Starbucks and an adjacent departure gate, and not a soul realized a Noble prize winner had passed by. Dressed in a suit and tie he looked like just another businessman rushing to catch a plane. And that’s the way he wanted it.