Charles Townes recalls how physicists' war work brought postwar research funding

Interviewed by Finn Aaserud, May 1987

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Of course, the nuclear bomb I think surprised people.... It changed the style, and the amount of money available, and the energy with which physics was pursued. And it made jobs in universities for people. Many of my friends from Caltech had taken jobs [in the 1930s] teaching high school even, teaching in junior colleges certainly — very good men teaching in junior college, working in the oil fields, working in industry. And suddenly after the war, why, there were jobs for them in the universities, and many of them became quite prominent. It wasn't for lack of ability that they were teaching in junior colleges. It's just that there were no jobs.


The laboratory that you turned to at Columbia was funded by the [U.S. Army] Signal Corps, I think you said?


It was a joint services laboratory, but under the responsibility of the Signal Corps primarily... it was a result of the war. That laboratory had been working on magnetrons [for radar] during the war, you see, and they had also started some measurements on the absorption of microwaves by water. They'd made some good measurements, but at high pressure, atmospheric pressure. I'd been working at low pressure where you could get narrow lines.... the laboratory was based on this initial thing, working on magnetrons, which then continued to be supported. After the war of course the ONR [Office of Naval Research, U.S. Navy] particularly but other services stepped in to help the universities and help them keep going, and they were interested in the further development of magnetrons. In a way, that was the job of that laboratory still, after the war, to develop higher frequency magnetrons. The armed services felt that anything in that general area, good physics in that general area was fair game, and that's of course what the university was interested in.