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James P. Gordon

In Memoriam: James P. Gordon

June 21, 2013

James P. GordonJames P. Gordon, an OSA Honorary Member and Fellow Emeritus who was known for his contributions to quantum electronics and optical communication theory, including the first demonstration of the maser, passed away on 21 June 2013.  He was 85.

Gordon was born in New York City in 1928. He attended the Phillips Exeter Academy and received a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1949.  He received his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Columbia University in 1951 and 1954, respectively.  In 1955, he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he served as head of the Quantum Electronics Research Department from 1958-1980. He remained at AT&T Bell Labs until his retirement in 1996.  Gordon also spent one year (1962-1963) as a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego (USCD).

Starting in 1954 as a student and throughout his long career, Gordon made numerous high-impact, seminal contributions to optics and quantum electronics that provided fundamental insights and the underpinning foundation for many important subjects in the field.  In one of his most outstanding achievements, as a student of Charles Townes at Columbia University, he analyzed, designed, built and demonstrated the successful operation of the first maser in 1954 with Townes and Herbert Zeiger. Later, following the Schawlow and Townes suggestion of the “optical maser,” he joined with Gary Boyd in the first paper describing the Confocal Resonator, which is fundamental for the modern analysis of Gaussian laser beams and optical cavities that are critical to the design and operation of lasers.  Anticipating the important role that lasers would play in enabling high capacity communication, he pioneered the quantum theory of the information capacity of an optical communications channel providing a seminal breakthrough in the fundamental understanding of the limiting capacity of optical communications.

As the optical communications field evolved, Gordon continued to do research that provided key knowledge and insight that was critical both to fellow researchers and to ultimately deployed systems. Gordon was a co-author of the report on the first observation of soliton propagation in optical fibers.   His seminal work on what is now called the “Gordon-Haus” effect, identifies and provides the understanding for the most important bit-rate-limiting effect in soliton transmission due to the random walk of coherently amplified solitons.  He provided other insights, including the explanation of the soliton self-frequency shift.

Gordon also provided very early key insight into the fundamental limits of coherent optical transmission systems, which have recently become quite prominent for high capacity commercial optical systems (100 Gb/s per wavelength).  He broad interests also included providing the theoretical basis for “optical tweezers.”

Gordon’s contributions were recognized worldwide and brought him many honors, including the Charles Hard Townes Award (1981), the Max Born Award (1991), the Willis E. Lamb Award (2001) and the Frederic Ives Medal (2002).  He was elected to both the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (1985) and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1988).  Gordon was a Fellow of OSA, IEEE and the American Physical Society.  He was named an OSA Honorary Member, OSA’s highest honor, in 2010.

In addition to his scientific career, Gordon was a professional player of Platform Tennis.  He won the U.S. National Championship for men’s doubles in 1959, and mixed doubles in 1961 and 1962.

Gordon is survived by his wife, Susanna Poythress Bland (Waldner), a former Bell-Labs computer programmer, and three children. 

If you would like to make a memorial donation to the OSA Foundation in honor of James P. Gordon, please visit

NPR News “Science Friday” Interview with James P. Gordon, 15 January 2010.

James P. Gordon's obituary in the New York Times.

James P. Gordon’s obituary in the Asbury Park Press.

Additional photos of James P. Gordon



Tributes to James P. Gordon

I am very sorry to hear this- we have lost a great pioneer who contributed an enormous amount to quantum electronics right from the very start and stayed active to the end. 
Sir Peter Knight
2004 OSA President

Jim’s contributions to optics and photonics, beginning in the 1950s with his co-invention of the maser, were crucial in shaping several areas of the field as we know them today—including quantum electronics, laser science and optical communications. When Jim joined us in 2010 for the LaserFest gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the laser, it gave us an opportunity to celebrate his legacy as one of the pioneers in modern optics and photonics. We were thrilled to have him there. He will be missed by all who knew him and OSA sends our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.
Elizabeth Rogan

I'm very sorry to hear the news.  Jim Gordon was a great scientist and a very esteemed colleague. I always enjoyed meeting him and discussing technical matters with him. His PhD thesis on the experimental demonstration and theory of the maser (done at Columbia with Charles Townes) essentially started the era of lasers and modern optics.
Tony Heinz
2012 OSA President

I'm sad to hear the news. I thought of Jim as the ideally personable true professional. As an Honorary Member, he was rightfully recognized by OSA as a superstar in quantum electronics and quantum optics.

Joseph H. Eberly
2007 OSA President

Jim was a wonderful friend, a brilliant scientist with inspired insights, and an outstanding tennis and paddle player. I was very fortunate to know him and to work and play with him. I learned a lot from him. We will miss him very much.

Herwig Kogelnik
1989 OSA President

Very sad news indeed.  Jim was a remarkable person – insightful and precise scientifically, thoughtful, kind and encouraging as a friend and colleague, and elegance in motion with a racquet in his hand.  It was a privilege to have known him.
Erich Ippen
2000 OSA President


I was very sorry to hear about Jim Gordon. He was definitely one of the best known pioneers of modern optics who played a pivotal role in the development of multiple new fields involving lasers. He will be greatly missed.

Eric Van Stryland
2006 OSA President