Statue of Charles Townes captures 'Oh boy!' moment

downtown statues

HEIDI HEILBRUNN/Staff

Frances Townes sits between her husband, Charles Townes, and a sculpture of him after its unveiling at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way on April 8, 2006.


The breakthrough formula that led to the invention of the laser hit Charles Townes as he sat on a Washington, D.C., park bench 55 years ago.

The Greenville native remembers thinking, "Oh boy!"

Townes described the moment on Saturday shortly before his wife of 60 years, Frances Townes, pulled back a black cloth, revealing a statue that re-creates just how stunned the scientist was at the time.

The statue of the Nobel laureate has a surprised look on his face. He holds a pen in his right hand. In his left is an envelope where he had just written a formula that would transform the way we listen to music, undergo surgery and pay for groceries.

"This, of course, makes me feel very proud," Townes said to a crowd gathered under a canopy at Camperdown Way and Main Street. "But I'm, I think, even more proud to have been born and brought up here in Greenville. I feel very lucky."

Townes' work on lasers won him the largest share of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964.

His statue sits in Townes Square, just outside RiverPlace, a mix of condos, offices and retail stores. The scientist looks through glasses across Main Street, toward Falls Park on the Reedy.

More than 200 friends, relatives and colleagues came from all over the country, gathering under a canopy on the windy corner of Camperdown Way and Main Street. Gray clouds hung over the city, but the rain held off as the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk.

Phil Hughes, president of Hughes Development, said that when he went to Mayor Knox White with the idea for the statue, he was amazed at how few people knew about Townes' Greenville roots. But the statue, he said, is just the beginning.

"We dream of having lasers on the skyline," Hughes said, "lasers connecting this area to the children's museum, lasers on the waterfall, laser shows in the bank lobby along the way."

Townes said his breakthrough moment came after he had worked with microwaves for several years and been asked to serve as chairman of a national committee tasked with shortening wavelengths. After more than a year without any answers, he woke up worried early one sunny day, Townes said.

He said he went to Franklin Park in Washington and sat on a bench. Suddenly, it came to him.

"Hey, wait a minute!" he remembers thinking.

Townes said he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and wrote an equation on it.

"Oh, it looks like -- yes, really -- it looks like it would work," he remembered thinking.

Townes said he kept the formula to himself. The committee turned in a report that said, "Sorry, we didn't have any answers," he recalled.

"I suspected that not everybody would believe that this thing would work," he said.

He and a graduate student, Jim Gordon, later went to work on proving it would. Two Nobel laureates tried to talk him out of it, but he kept on because was he "belligerent enough" and had tenure, Townes said.

"They couldn't fire me," he said. "About three months later, Jim Gordon broke into my classroom and said, 'Hey, it's working.' "

In the statue, Townes holds a pen with a green light at the tip. He wears an open jacket and a button-down shirt. The bench came from Franklin Park.

With a statue on Main Street, Townes joins an exclusive club that has just three other members, all former Greenville residents: former White Sox slugger Shoeless Joe Jackson, poinsettia namesake Joel Poinsett and "Father of Greenville" Vardry McBee.

"Here we are today to tell another part -- a very important part -- of the Greenville story," White said.

After the unveiling, Frances Townes and her husband crammed onto the bench. She put one arm around the statue and the other around the real thing.

Frances Townes said she met her husband in New York while they were in school. Both loved music, the outdoors and languages. He was the scientist and introvert. She was the humanist and extrovert.

They've had four daughters.

"We complemented each other all through the years," she said.

Townes was born in Greenville to Henry and Ellen Townes. He grew up on a 20-acre farm off Pendleton Street where he milked cows and raised rabbits. The former homestead is now the site of Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital, where lasers help save patients' lives.

At Greenville High, Townes took math classes, but no science. He enrolled at Furman University at 15, where he took his first physics course and busied himself with the school newspaper, the swimming team and the football band. Townes graduated summa cum laude in 1935 at 19.

Furman President David Shi said the university has since awarded Townes an honorary doctoral degree and a distinguished alumnus award and made him a charter member of the school's Hall of Fame. A new $60 million science complex has been named for him.

Shi called the statue an opportunity for the city to "create a legacy for everyone to remember and acknowledge that one of the most important people in the world was born and raised in Greenville."

After Furman, Townes headed for Duke University, completing work for a master's degree in physics, and then to the California Institute of Technology for his doctorate. He then worked in industrial research with Bell Telephone Laboratories.

When World War II broke out, Bell asked him to work on radar bombing systems, said John Taylor, Townes' nephew and a doctor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This was a change from what he wanted to do," Taylor said. "But it was a change that turned out to be fortuitous."

Townes went on to become a professor at Columbia University, where he used research left over from the war to develop a predecessor to the laser, the "maser," in 1954, Taylor said.

Townes and his brother-in-law wrote the seminal paper on lasers in 1958, setting off a rush to build the first one, he said.

"It certainly became clear the laser had broad applications," Taylor said.

Townes shared his Nobel prize with two scientists from the USSR. A quarter each went to Nicolay G. Basov and Aleksandr M. Prokhorov.

At 90, Townes is the only one of the three still alive.

In the 1960s, Townes pushed hard for the Apollo program, Taylor said. He has also been an adviser to four presidents.

Townes now lives in Berkeley, Calif., and still works six days a week, Taylor said. He has turned his attention to a long-held interest, astronomy. Using telescopes on Mount Wilson near Pasadena, Townes looks at the center of the galaxy and has discovered a black hole, Taylor said.

John Townes, the co-CEO of Piedmont Travel, told Townes that Greenville was lucky to have a Nobel laureate as a native son.

"Thank you, Charlie!" he said.

Paul Alongi