James P. Gordon

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Interviewed by
Joan Bromberg
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Interview of James P. Gordon by Joan Bromberg on 1986 October 27, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4638

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Gordon recruited by R. Kompfner to Bell Laboratories to initiate maser research; briefly comments on his collaboration on the 2-level solid state maser. Also prominently mentioned are: Charles H. Townes; and Physical Review.


I interviewed for jobs at a handful of places after I received my PhD, among them RCA and Bell Laboratories. Art Schawlow, whom I knew, was on the recruiting team for Bell. Rudolf Kompfner was actually the man who recruited me. He wanted me to come and work on masers. Kompfner was very inventive, always looking out for new technologies. He believed new things should be pursued. The ammonia beam maser already had some obvious potential applications: for example to time standards and low noise amplifiers. Traveling wave tubes, which Kompfner’s group was working on, like all other amplifiers at this point, had noise due to fluctuations in charge. The maser lacked this and was therefore, in theory, a very low noise amplifier. My early maser work stressed the application to amplification. Pierce, though he supported the work, was not very visible to me in these years.

I think I talked with Townes at the time he visited here and after that started working with Feher on the solid-state maser. Beam maser work was done in my laboratory, but the solid-state work was done in Feher’s. He had the sample, which he had originally obtained for other purposes, and he had the electron spin resonance apparatus. These experiments would therefore have been written up in his notebook.

The only reference to them in my notebook is dated October 1957. Of the other three authors [G. Feher, J.P. Gordon, E. Buehler, E.A. Gere, and C.D. Thurmond, “Spontaneous Emission of Radiation from an Electron Spin System,” Phys. Rev. 109 [1958], 221-222], Buehler and Thurmond were materials people and had nothing to do with the actual experiment. Ed Gere was Feher’s technical assistant.

I do recall that we didn’t waste any time getting this into publication, so that if the submission date was November 1957, it must have been ready shortly before. On the other hand, in reflecting on this work some time ago, I had the recollection that we made it work before the three-level, maser. So the exact dates are something of a puzzle.

Among the experiments recorded in my laboratory notebook, there is some work to try to use the beam maser as a frequency standard. My approach was to broaden the resonance somewhat by imposing a magnetic field [???]. If the maser were out of tune, the field would shift the frequency. If it were in tune, the frequency would stay the same.

[In response to a question about why the results on the two-level maser were presented at the Electron Tube Convergence.] The Tube Conference presentation probably was the result of Kompfner’s involvement, and of the fact that my group was working on tubes. Historically, Kompfner, Quate, and Cutler were moving forces behind tube work at the Laboratory. Quate and Cutler did not have much to do with masers, although Quate was interested, and followed the work. And, historically, a number of reports on masers had been given at tube conferences, dating back to Joseph Weber in 1952.

I would think serious work on the two-level maser would have begun after Townes left Paris in 1956, since we would not have wanted to encroach on his prerogative to follow up his own ideas. Feher may have done some work before that, but not much, because I was involved in the basic experimental design.