March's featured article

Lasers, Patents, and Progress: the Spirit of Follow-On Innovation

Eric Atkisson : Office of the Chief Communications Officer

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the first Patent Act on April 10, 2015, Inventors Eye explores the evolution of an iconic technology and the many innovators who have contributed to its development.

Four years ago, scientists, technologists, and innovators celebrated the 50th anniversary of the laser, reminding us of the many ways in which patented laser technology—like other forms of intellectual property (IP)—has transformed our way of life by creating tens of thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars of business in the United States and around the world through a continuous process of what is commonly called follow-on innovation.

The Founding Fathers would no doubt have taken pride in the laser as yet another shining example proving the value of the “progress clause” in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and of the first Patent Act that soon followed it.

Alternately known as the copyright or patent clause, the progress clause, written in 1787, empowered Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Rooted in British common law and European history, the limited term of that “exclusive right”—as a patent, copyright or, later, a trademark—was, much like the Constitution itself, a judicious balance, one that could provide an incentive for invention and disseminate knowledge while also guaranteeing that others could, after an appropriate period of time, freely incorporate these “Writings and Discoveries” for their own purposes of creativity and innovation.

The Patent Act of 1790 further defined the subject matter of a patent as “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used,”—any improvement thereon being an early and explicit acknowledgement of the importance of cumulative or follow-on innovation.

The cumulative innovation that provided myriad forms of laser technology we enjoy today began in 1917 with Albert Einstein, the first to theorize the process of “stimulated emission.” But it wasn’t until 1954 that Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow turned theory into practice with their invention of Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, or maser, using ammonia gas and microwave radiation, for which they were granted U.S. Patent 2,929,922 in 1960.

Publication of their findings in 1958 generated a race among researchers and innovators to build the first laser. Gordon Gould, a student of Townes’, built the first optical laser in 1958. In 1960, Theodore Maiman invented the ruby laser and Ali Javan the first gas laser. In 1962, Robert Hall invented the semiconductor injection laser, which is still used in many electronic appliances and communications systems. Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer in 1969. And in 1981, Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan, and James Wynne co-invented a process using a short pulse ultraviolet laser to etch tissue in minute increments and in a highly controlled fashion. Gholam Peyman improved upon their discovery in his invention of LASIK eye surgery, patented in 1989.

In his 2002 autobiography, “How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist,” Townes wrote that the “development of the maser and laser, and their subsequent applications in my career and in science and technology generally, followed no script except to hew to the nature of humans groping to understand, to explore, and to create.” Over that same period of exploration and creation, more than 55,000 laser-related patents were granted in the United States.

Those same patents have generated billions of dollars of business since 1960, through licensing fees and the many laser-based products created in the lab, manufactured at home and abroad, and sold and employed for the benefit of consumers in the marketplace. The “exclusive right” guaranteed in the progress clause of the U.S. Constitution made that possible. It provides companies an incentive to innovate in the knowledge that a patented invention can not only help them recover the costs of research and development, but allows them to reap profits from licensing and sales that can in turn fund more innovation, while simultaneously disseminating the information needed for others to explore, create, and improve upon previous patented technology.

But for scientists like Townes, the thrill of discovery and creation will always be a compelling incentive of its own, not to mention the recognition of their achievements that survive long after they’re gone. In addition to several Nobel Prizes,, many of these pioneers of patented laser technology have since been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, maintained in partnership with Invent Now Inc. at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. They include Charles Townes (1976); Theodore Maiman (1984); Gordon Gould (1991); Robert Hall (1994); Arthur Schawlow (1996); Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan, and James Wynne (2002); Ali Javan (2006); and Gary Starkweather (2012).

Blum, Peyman, Srinivasan, and Wynne were also recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, administered by the USPTO on behalf of the Department of Commerce.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” President Obama said, in awarding the medals in early 2013. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great—and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

Fostering that creative and entrepreneurial environment remains the central promise of the progress clause, 227 years after it was written and 225 years since the Patent Act of 1790. Ensuring that our nation’s IP laws continue to spur the kind of innovation that made the evolution of the laser possible remains one of the key missions of the USPTO. 

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.