Charles Hard Townes (born July 28, 1915) is an American physicist and educator. Townes is known for his work on the theory and application of the maser, on which he obtained the fundamental patent, and other work in quantum electronics connected with both maser and laser devices. He received a B.A and B.S. from Furman University and a M.A. from Duke University


Charlie Townes was the lead researcher in the construction of the Infrared Spatial Interferometer, the first astronomical interferometer to operate in the mid-infrared. He continues researching into astrophysics and astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley.


Townes has been widely recognised for his scientific work and leadership.

  • He was awarded in 1961 David Sarnoff Electronics Award given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the 1961 Rumford Medal awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • He received the 1962 John Carty Award given by the National Academy of Science.
  • He shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with N. G. Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov for contributions to this field.
  • In 1979 he was awarded the Niels Bohr international medal awarded for contributions to the peaceful use of atomic energy.
  • In 1980 Townes was inducted by his home state into the South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology, and has also been awarded a South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology Citation.
  • He received the 1982 National Medal of Science, presented by President Ronald Regan.
  • In 1998 he was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship by the American Astronomical Society.
  • In 2005 he was awarded the "Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities".
  • He has also been awarded the LeConte Medallion.


Between 1966 and 1970 he was chairman of the NASA Science Advisory Committee for the Apollo lunar landing program.


He received his bachelor's degrees in physics and modern languages from Furman University in 1935, and his Ph.D. in physics from Caltech in 1939. With Arthur Leonard Schawlow, he wrote the book Microwave Spectroscopy, published in 1955.

Partial Bibliography

  • R.Y. Chiao, Amazing Light : A Volume Dedicated To Charles Hard Townes On His 80th Birthday, Springer, 1996.
  • J. Hecht, Beam: The Race to Make the Laser, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • J. Hecht, Laser Pioneers, Academic Press, 1991.
  • N. Taylor, Laser: The Inventor, the Noble Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War, Citadel, 2003.
  • C.H. Townes, Making Waves, AIP Press, 1995.
  • C.H. Townes, How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Oxford University Press, 2000.


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Biographies of Physicists and Astronomers