Four Lessons In Innovation From The Inventor Of The Laser

How failure, intuition, serendipity, and perseverance gave us one of the world’s most important inventions of the last 100 years, and what it teaches us about innovation today.

The path to invention and true innovation is rarely easy. And the story of how the laser (with its broad applications in medicine, communications, the military, commerce, industry) is ripe with lessons.

In his autobiography, How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Charles H. Townes, a principal inventor of the laser, reveals some important lessons he learned over his long career, including a two-decade patent battle and a lingering controversy over "ownership" of key elements of the laser invention.

Published when he was 87, Townes (who is now 98 years old), tells a story of failure, serendipitous discovery, collaboration, inventiveness, perseverance, as well as intrigue and politics. In short, he provides insights in to what it takes to succeed in today’s world. Here are four of his key messages:

1. Conquer and Reframe Failure

Although a good student, Townes was unable to enroll at any of his top choices for graduate school, including MIT, Cornell, University of Chicago, and Princeton. Then, upon completing his studies, Townes later failed to secure a university research position. As he tells it:

“Not getting a first-class university job was a failure from which arose success, just as my failure to get a fellowship at Duke led me to richly rewarding years at Caltech."

While it is hard to call getting accepted to Caltech or getting a top university research positions “failures,” they did present a diversion from Townes’s career path.

And the "failures" continued. After working for several years, the radar system that Townes spent part of World War II designing was ultimately scrapped by the military because of its lack of effectiveness. Townes took the failure in stride:

The radar system on which I had been working had to be scrapped--another failure that nonetheless provided me with a great boon. This intense work on the radar and microwaves is what oriented me toward molecular spectroscopy as a major career focus.

The Lesson: How many of us have failed to get what we want, only to be thankful for the "failure" later on? Failures are often stepping stones to the next success, and rejection is sometimes a blessing. Roll with the punches. Failure can only be evaluated with the hindsight of experience. As Townes said:

“It is of course impossible to know ahead of time what failures are really successes in disguise, so the best thing to do is simply go after what seems to be the right thing at the time. It is also valuable to know, when confronting a feeling of failure, that it could turn out remarkably well.”

2. Inspiration is All Around You

With so much focus today on innovation and creativity, it’s fascinating to discover where successful inventors received their inspiration. Townes provides insights into where he received his own:

One has ideas, does experiments, meets people, seeks advice, calls old friends, runs into unexpected remarks, meets new people with new ideas, and in the process finds a career of shifts and often serendipitous meanders that may be rewarding and rich, but is seldom marked by guideposts glimpsed very far in advance…”

“…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. As a striking example of how important technology applied to human interests can grow out of basic university research, the laser’s development fits a general pattern. As is often the case, it was a pattern which could not possibly have been planned in advance.”

The Lesson: World-changing ideas come from gathering information, interacting with a broad range of people, applying creativity, and (sometimes) adding a heaping of serendipity.

3. Perseverance Is Crucial

The laser would not been invented without the perseverance that is the mark of all successful discoverers and inventors. In the mid-1950s, while a professor at Columbia University, Townes was categorically told by his superiors (both Nobel laureates for their work with atomic and molecular beams) to drop his research direction, because it would only lead to failure.

How many of us would resist a stinging rebuke from two Nobel laureates to continue to pursue our course of action? But here is what Townes did next:

I knew that the chances for quick success were somewhat marginal, but that the physics undergirding the concept was sound and the numbers promising. Rabi and Kusch, I felt, were going more on instinct. I simply told them that I thought it had a reasonable chance and that I would continue.

The Lesson: Follow your internal compass, and ignore naysayers, regardless of their expert credentials.

4. Pursue Your Great Ideas

It is said that "success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan" and that is certainly true with most major scientific discoveries and technological inventions. The laser was no exception. It turns out the idea of the laser was quite well known decades before its invention. In fact, the underlying "stimulated emission" physics had been worked out by Einstein in 1917. As Townes says, “Yet, the device had not been invented earlier. Once it appeared, multiple people claimed credit.”

So why wasn’t it invented earlier? Townes continues:

When a good idea finally appears, it is very common for a number of other people suddenly to declare that they had been thinking about the same thing all along. They may indeed have been thinking somewhat casually about it and, if the idea appears elsewhere, they may begin publishing on it themselves. Yet if no one else says anything about it, they may never get serious about it themselves.

The Lesson: How many of us had a great idea but did nothing to pursue it, only to see someone else make it successful later on? Don’t squander your opportunities. If you have an idea, persevere until your idea is realized. Life is too short to passively watch your ideas be realized by others.

Author David Lavenda is a technology strategist at an innovative mobile collaboration company. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Douglas Muth]

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  • Another famous inventor who also looked at failure as a stepping stone to success...Thomas Edison. - "many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

  • Outstanding! A crucial lesson for the millions of school children and college students - and their parents! - who lust for success and As and who fear failure and falling off the A-train to wealth and fame. Thank you for this!