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“Laser: The Inventor, The Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War” by Nick Taylor (Simon & Schuster; 287 pages, $27.50) To many inventors, patents are all about the two most important things in life: fame and fortune. Securing and defending a patent can be an endless source of pain, frustration, and combativeness that can last a lifetime. “Laser” is the story of one of those seemingly endless battles. But it’s more than that. It’s also the heroic tale of young and naive Gordon Gould, an inventor who, having been denied the original patent for that beam of coherent light, spent almost half his life (30 years) fighting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with one hand and big business with the other for the right to be known as the beam’s inventor and the right to collect the royalties that are the spoils of a patent war. Like many first-time inventors, Gould quickly learned that credit for being “the first” does not necessarily go to the person with the original idea. In fact, the act of invention may be the simplest, most economical, and least painful part of the inventive process. Up until a few years ago, the invention of the laser was credited to world-famous scientists Arthur Shawlow and Charles Townes, who worked for Bell Laboratories. Townes was awarded a share of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his laser work. In “Laser,” journalist Nick Taylor relentlessly attempts to set the record straight. After opening “Laser” with the 1987 courtroom battle between Townes and Gould, Taylor then takes the reader back 30 years in his quest to show how Gould had been wrongfully denied his patent claims. Taylor reminds us how important world events were to the patent fight. Taking us from the Manhattan Project, through the Cold War, and into the era of the Internet, he recounts the shifting moods of the country and their effect on Gould’s struggle. For example, “Laser” not only offers a detailed look at the inner political, economic, and legal workings of the patenting process but also shines a light on the aspect of the McCarthy era not usually visible outside of the Hollywood blacklists. “There was no well-publicized Laboratory 10 to compare with the blacklisted screenwriters and directors who had defied the House Un-American Activities Committee and became known as the Hollywood 10,” Taylor writes, “but Gould was just as certainly prevented from doing his best work during the heights of his powers.” Gould, a graduate student at Columbia University, first conceived of the laser in the late 1950s. According to Taylor, “Gould sat bolt upright in bed one night in November 1957, grabbed a notebook, and wrote down the essence” of “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Having no legal training and a very poor understanding of patent law, Gould would make a mistake that would entail decades of court fights and countless legal fees. Instead of immediately filing his ideas with the patent office, he took his notebook to the local notary and had it notarized. He waited until 1959 to file for his patent. But by that time, competing scientists were working independently toward developing a laserlike device. They and their well-financed legal teams challenged Gould’s patent claims and sought to deny him royalties and profits. Over the years Gould would fight challenges to four basic patents that he claimed for both uses and designs of lasers. His most famous challenge would come from Bell Laboratories, which filed a competing patent application in 1958 based on the work for which Townes would eventually win the Nobel Prize. Townes’ enhanced reputation would weigh heavily against Gould, a mere graduate student who had never finished his doctorate. Soon other technology companies, cringing at the idea of paying Gould millions of dollars in royalties, entered the fray. They attacked his character. As a young college student he had shown interest in the Communist party. The woman he was dating at the time was an active Communist. She had dragged Gould to party meetings at just the wrong time of the century — the McCarthy era. What court would ever grant a Communist, even a reformed one, the patent for a device so important to the safety of the free world? They attacked his pedigree. Gould never finished his work toward his Ph.D. in physics. That sheepskin, the badge of all “legitimate” scientists, kept him outside the club of “real” researchers. Gould could not have been smart enough to have invented the laser, his detractors would argue. Bell Labs attorneys would claim that Gould must have seen a prepublication copy of Physical Review in 1958, in which Shawlow and Townes described their device. Ignored, argued Gould, was the fact that in the early 1950s, as a Columbia graduate student, he had worked down the hall from professor Townes. At that time, the professor was creating his own optical amplifier, and Gould had shared his nascent laser ideas with his superior. Townes had in fact “witnessed” one of Gould’s 1957 notebook pages with his own signature. Townes had also reviewed, for the Department of Defense, a secret proposal for an optical device that Gould had written in 1957, while working for the Technical Research Group. If anything, said Gould, Townes may have inadvertently “absorbed” one of Gould’s ideas and applied it to his own laser work, which Townes published in 1958. With the help of sympathetic lawyers willing to work on a contingency basis, Gould battled back. At times it appeared he was taking on the whole industry, as giants like Bell Labs, General Electric, and Hughes Aircraft came after him at once. He appealed contradictory and head-scratching legal decisions. When in 1973 the federal Court of Customs and Patent Appeals ruled that Gould did not own the laser patent, the court said that since he had not built a working model of the laser, he could not have invented one. “It seemed to turn on its ear the practice of the patent office since the nineteenth century,” writes Taylor, “that except for the claims of perpetual motion machines, working models weren’t required for patents to be granted.” (Indeed, the Patent Office is filled with patents that may or may not work, including dozens of 19th century pre-Edison lightbulbs never brought to market.) Ever the good storyteller, Taylor successfully puts a human face on a figure history has shunted aside. We learn that Gould coveted his missing royalties more than the unobtainable Nobel Prize. Taylor also takes us through Gould’s romantic relationships. But the bulk of “Laser” is rightly devoted to the inventor’s fierce legal battles. It is a well-worn tenet of the patent world that when a large company challenges your patent, it has the legal and financial means to tie you up in litigation for years. The legal dispute can literally outlive you. Gould’s opponents were both tenacious and creative. General Motors attorneys argued that because Archimedes, 2,300 years earlier, had focused sunlight on the sails of enemy ships to set them on fire and because Boy Scouts routinely use magnifying glasses to start camp fires, novel uses claimed for laser light were not at all new, and Gould did not deserve a patent. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also treated him with contempt, but Gould found an ally in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court “dismantled” the patent office’s defense, and in a stinging rebuke stated that Gould had described his laser “in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person” sufficiently skilled to make and use one. Taylor takes pains to give the unsung heroes of this story — Gould’s many faithful patent lawyers who stood by his side for decades, like Robert Keegan of Darby & Darby and Dick Samuel of Lerner, David, Littenberg & Samuel — the credit that they are due. When Dick Samuel first met Gould, he assumed him to be just another of many clients “who claimed inventions from fire to the wheel.” But when Gould opened his briefcase and showed him detailed papers documenting his claims, the evidence was so convincing that the law office agreed to invest $300,000 worth of time and expenses. Near the end of the book, Taylor returns to the 1987 courtroom showdown between Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes and Gould. Townes had been called as an expert witness by the Control Laser Corporation to defend a suit brought by Gould charging that Control Laser had made unauthorized use of one of Gould’s patents. In a climactic piece of courtroom drama, Taylor takes us through the legal dismantling of the key witness, Townes, by Holland & Knight partner Warren Goodrich, “a courtly man with gleaming hair of snowy white and a voice like honey, perfumed with a kind of homespun, folksy talk the kind that juries loved.” By the time Goodrich had finished cross-examining Townes, even Gould could not help feeling sorry for the witness. “He wouldn’t have blamed Townes if he had wanted to go home and stick pins in a lawyer doll. Which would have been completely unscientific.” The jury ruled in favor of Gould. Just a few weeks later, 10 days short of the thirtieth anniversary of the notary seal on Gould’s first notebook, the patent office awarded him the key patent that he had originally sought in 1957. More patents were to follow. In 1991, with all four of his basic laser patents still in force, Gordon Gould was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, where he joined, among others, Charles Townes. As for riches, Gould eventually made millions off the patents but did not realize his wealth until late in life. “Laser” lays bare the complicated minefield of the patenting system and the obstacles that a small-time inventor — or any inventor — faces in determining who was “first.” Many years ago, Eliot Sivowitch of the Smithsonian Institution summed up the problem for me succinctly in his Sivowitch Law of Firsts: “Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look, you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person you thought was first was third. Someone else will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place.” Nick Taylor firmly places Gordon Gould at the head of the long list of laser firsts. Ira Flatow is executive producer and host of “Science Friday” on NPR, http://www.sciencefriday.com/. His latest book is “They All Laughed … From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives.”

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