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Charles Townes ’35, beloved scientist, teacher and Nobel Prize winner, dies at 99

Townes2Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, Greenville native and a 1935 graduate of Furman University, died Tuesday morning. He was 99 and in failing health.

Arguably Greenville’s most illustrious citizen, Dr. Townes received the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his pioneering work in the development of the maser and laser.  A book published in 1999 titled “1000 years, 1000 people,” ranked Dr. Townes 819 on a list of the 1,000 most important people of the millennium. The first five were Gutenberg, Columbus, Martin Luther, Galileo and Shakespeare.  Those failing to make the cut included John Kennedy, William Gates and Ronald Reagan.

“The Furman community has lost a giant today,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis. “Charles Townes’ scientific explorations and path-breaking discoveries changed our world in wondrous ways, and new uses of the technology are unfolding even today. He represented the very best that Furman offers to the world—an individual of rare intelligence and unbounded curiosity, the courage to explore the unknown, the wisdom to serve humankind, an abiding faith that sustained him, and a generosity that has enriched each new generation of students here.”

During a celebrated career that has spanned eight decades Dr. Townes has served on the faculty at Columbia, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley.  He has counseled presidents, was a key NASA advisor during the Apollo mission and holds more than two dozen honorary degrees and a trove of awards and honors.

In spite of his international acclaim and celebrity, Dr. Townes remained true to his Greenville roots and enduring faith. Though Dr. Townes and his longtime wife, Frances, lived in California, they visited the Upstate regularly where he is a Furman Board of Trustee emeritus. Tributes to Dr. Townes grace Furman’s campus. The most visible is the  Charles H. Townes Science Center, a $62.5 million facility that houses all of the University’s science departments, that was named in his honor in 2008. The Charles H. Townes Lecture Series in Faith in Reason was launched in 2006 with endowed gifts from the John Templeton Foundation and Dr. Townes. The series, held annually, highlights the common ground between science and religion. The Charles H. Townes Scholarship, which provides $25,000 per year in scholarship aid with a $1,000 stipend to study abroad and a $1,500 summer internship or research stipend, is also awarded to a handful of students each year.

Charles Hard Townes was born in 1915 and grew up on Sumner Street in a home that was later razed to make room for St. Francis Hospital.  He was the fourth child of Ellen Hard Townes, a homemaker and 1902 graduate of the Greenville Women’s College. Charles’ father, Henry, was an attorney and member of the Furman class of 1897.  The Townes children grew up in a Baptist household that encouraged intellectual pursuits and open-minded discussions of the Bible.

“Charlie” attended public schools and during the summers sometimes operated a small street-side stand where he sold apples and firecrackers to passers-by for a few pennies. He studied physics, mathematics and biology at Furman where he graduated summa cum laude at 19. Outside of the classroom, Townes collected specimens for the university’s biology camp, wrote for the college newspaper and was a member of the swimming team and football band.

After earning a Master of Arts in physics from Duke University in 1936, Townes packed his belongings and bought a bus ticket to Pasadena where he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and later earned a Ph.D. In 1940 he took a job with Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York and during World War II worked on radar bombing systems that could operate effectively in the severe humidity of the South Pacific.

After World War II he became associate professor of physics at Columbia University and met Arthur L. Schawlow, who became his research assistant. The two would eventually combine their energies (and become brothers-in-law) to make major advances in the field of microwave spectroscopy.

In 1951 Dr. Townes, along with many other physicists, was studying how to use microwave spectroscopy to better examine molecular structure. As part of his research, he chaired a Navy-sponsored committee that encouraged research that might result in the generation of waves shorter than those of current radar systems—a goal that had proven elusive to researchers around the world.

One spring morning before a committee meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Townes woke up early and, because the hotel restaurant was not yet open, went outside to greet the day. As he sat on a bench, wrestling with his research questions, a solution popped into his head, and he quickly jotted it down on a piece of paper. His sudden insight led to the development of the first working maser, a device that amplifies electromagnetic waves, and soon thereafter, in collaboration with Schawlow, to the invention of the laser, which amplifies and directs light waves into parallel direct beams. Ultimately, it resulted in an astonishing array of discoveries now in common use in medicine, telecommunications, electronics, computers and many other areas. A statue on Main Street in Greenville marks the moment that Townes was sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C.

In 1955, Dr. Townes and Schawlow co-authored the influential book Microwave Spectroscopy, and in 1960 they shared a patent for the laser. In 1961, a year after Frank Drake and associates launched the first scientific search for radio transmissions from distant solar systems, Dr. Townes co-authored a paper with R.N. Schwartz in Nature that proposed using the optical spectrum for similar indications.

Dr. Townes received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 with two physicists from the Lebedev Institute in Moscow, Aleksander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov. They were honored for “fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”

Dr. Townes has served as provost and professor of physics at MIT, director of the Enrico Fermi International School of Physics, and university professor of physics at the University of California. He holds honorary degrees from more than 25 institutions (including Furman) and is the recipient of close to 100 honors and awards.

“My greatest debt to Furman is for the opportunity to associate in small classes with a number of interesting, inspiring, devoted men,” Dr. Townes once said. “It was a privilege for me to sit in their classes—particularly those classes that were their special hobbies.”

Dr. Townes is survived by his wife, Frances Hildreth Townes, whom he married in 1941; daughters Holly Townes, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Townes-Anderson and Carla Kessler; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to the Charles H. Townes Lectureship or Henry Keith and Ellen Hard Townes Professorship. Please mail to Development Department, Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Highway, Greenville, SC 29613. For more information, call 864-294-3491.


Last updated January 27, 2015
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director