Discovering and exploring the many treasures of South Carolina

Notable South Carolinians- Dr. Charles Hard Townes

Charles Townes        












Goals are a part of every human life. They give us something to strive for, to measure our progress as individuals. Some people set small goals each day to challenge themselves. Others set long range goals, viewing a broader picture. Our next Notable South Carolinian became one of the most influential physicists of  the 20th Century. This scientific genius is known worldwide for his development of the maser and the laser. His numerous contributions to science earned him a distinguished Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964. This Greenville, South Carolina native spent the better part of a century breaking down complex equations and formulas. His two major inventions changed the world as we know it today. I am proud to say that this influential man hails from my hometown. Who am I kidding? I hail from his hometown. This highly successful physicist is Dr. Charles Hard Townes.

  Charles Hard Townes was born to Henry Keith and Ellen Hard Townes in Greenville, South Carolina on July 28, 1915. Henry Townes was a well educated and successful Upcountry lawyer. Ellen Townes was every bit as talented as her husband. Mrs. Townes aspired to be a physician until her parents dissuaded her from pursuing the profession. The Townes Family lived on a farm near the current location of St. Francis Hospital. As a young child Townes was fascinated by natural history. Charles and his older brother Henry collected insects, bird eggs, seashells and various rocks. He also enjoyed spending time with numerous pets that resided on the family farm. Townes was raised in a highly spiritual, yet open-minded Baptist household. His family talked freely about their interpretations of varied Bible passages. Charlie excelled in the classroom throughout his childhood. He skipped the seventh grade without missing a beat. Townes graduated with honors from Greenville High School in 1931. The young prodigy entered Furman University shortly after celebrating his 16th Birthday. Charles Townes, like many scholars, had an insatiable appetite for learning. While at Furman, Charles continued to push himself towards lofty goals. In addition to his rigorous studies, he contributed to the school newspaper, swam on the school’s swim team and played in the Furman football band. Townes graduated summa cum laude from Furman in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Modern Languages and a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics.

    Charles Townes left Greenville for graduate studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Townes received his Masters in Physics from Duke in 1937. Charles ventured more than 2,000 miles west for graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. The young scientist chose Caltech for it’s sterling reputation in the field of physics. At Caltech Townes was challenged by his environment more than any time in his young life. The small graduate school was highly competitive. Charles’ living conditions in California were extremely humble. Townes paid $6 a month in rent at this time, living “out of a trunk” and sleeping “in a little bunk on the sleeping porch.” After three years of stimulating work in Pasadena, Charlie received his doctorate. His doctoral thesis involved “isotope separation and nuclear spins.” Soon after receiving his Ph.D., Townes took a job in New York City at Bell Labs. Early in his tenure at Bell he met and fell in love with a young woman named Frances Brown. The two courted for a brief time and married in the Spring of 1941. Dr. Townes remained at Bell Laboratories through World War II. His work involving radar bombing systems played a vital role for Allied forces late in the war.

    Dr. Townes accepted a position as Associate Professor of Physics at NYC’s Columbia University in 1948. After a brief time as part of the Columbia faculty, Townes met a young graduate student named Arthur Shawlow. Shawlow helped Townes in the early days as a research assistant. The two scientists developed a close friendship. Townes and his wife Frances often invited Shawlow over for dinner. Mrs. Townes was instrumental in the eventual courtship between Shawlow and Charles’ youngest sister Aurelia. The young scientist met Aurelia Townes in 1950 at a dinner party held by Frances Townes. Arthur Shawlow and Aurelia Townes married the very next year. As brothers-in-law, Townes and Shawlow collaborated on many ideals that changed the world forever. In 1951 Dr. Townes came up with the idea for the maser. Soon Charles and his colleagues tested a device “using ammonia gas as the active medium.” By 1954 Townes and Shawlow debuted the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) as their invention. The maser amplified radio signals and also detected highly sensitive material for space research. The next year brought literary success for the two scientists. Charles Townes and Arthur Shawlow penned the book Microwave Spectroscopy in 1955. Three years later Townes and Shawlow penned a paper called Infrared and Optical Masers on the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). The paper was published in a scientific journal, launching a “new scientific field” and paving the way to a “multi billion-dollar industry.” The laser was an optical source that could “operate at wave lengths a thousand times shorter than the maser.”

    From 1959-1961 Dr. Townes served as Vice President and Research Director for the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington. Late in 1961 Townes left Columbia University to become the Provost and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As M.I.T. Provost, Townes supervised the general research and educational programs of the institute. Charles’ greatest scientific achievement came in 1964 when he won the Nobel Prize for “fundamental work in quantum electronics which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.” Dr. Townes resigned his post at M.I.T. in 1967 to concentrate on new fields of study, such as quantum electronics and astronomy. Charlie Townes accepted a post as University Professor at the University of California- Berkeley in the Fall of  ’67. At Berkeley, Townes spent most of his time teaching and researching new avenues such as astrophysics. During his long tenure at California’s flagship university, Townes continued to teach new perspectives, collecting numerous awards and honors along the way. In 1982 Charles Townes was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Ronald Reagan. Four years later Dr. Townes was tabbed university professor emeritus at UC- Berkeley. The 2005 Templeton Prize might be the most impressive award bestowed upon Charles Townes. The Templeton is a prestigious award given to “a living individual who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.” Charles Townes and Mother Teresa are the only two people to win the Templeton Prize and a Nobel Prize.

   Charles Townes celebrated his 95th Birthday this past July. The scientific contributions made by Dr. Townes are felt every day across the globe. His personal achievements in physics and technology have received well deserved aplomb. I, however, am most impressed by Dr. Townes’ relationships with those that know him best. Charlie Townes is held in high regard as an individual with character that shines farther than any laser. Townes has been a devoted husband to his wife Frances for nearly 70 years. He has also been a shining example to his four daughters. Townes was asked in 2001 what makes a marriage work. Townes replied, ” Genuineness of commitment and devotion. One has to be able to forgive.” I couldn’t agree more. Charles Townes also has a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ. His convictions hold more weight than any of his scientific experiments or hypotheses. Townes believes that religion and science are “united by similar goals”. It just so happens that Charles Townes, a Southern boy at heart, finds joy and peace in both.


INDIGO BLUE NOTES: Greenvillians have recently recognized Dr. Charles Townes for his many contributions to science and humankind. The above picture is a 2006 sculpture of Charles Townes by Zan Wells, located at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way. Dr. Townes is shown here from 1951 jotting notes on an envelope as he came up with the main principles for the maser and laser. On a personal level, I have learned I have a few connections to Dr. Townes. My grandmother told me last week that we are not so distantly related to Charles Townes. Charles’ sister Ellen taught my grandmother Latin at Greenville Junior High back in the late 30′s. My great aunt was in the same class at Greenville High with his sister Aurelia. I also found out that Charles’ father Henry was my great grandfather’s lawyer. Also of note, my wife Maxi works at Greenville’s Charles Townes Center, the school for gifted children in Greenville County.

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  1. I like this one best of all. Good job.

  2. I agree with Linda- this is your best entry. Could it have something to do with the family connection??? Also, I did not know that Maxi’s school was named after Charles Townes.

  3. nice article, keep the posts coming

  4. Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!


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