In the middle of September of 1959, more than160 of the world’s most prominent scientists– eight of whom would go on to earn a Nobel prize– gathered at a remote mountain lodge for three days of discussions that have become known as “the conference that changed the world.”
The remote mountain lodge that played host to this groundbreaking get together was not in the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas of Tibet, but in Sullivan County, New York.
It was the First International Conference on Quantum Electronics at the Sha-wan-ga Lodge in High View, and many leading authorities credit it with germinating the seed that just a few months later led to the invention of the laser, the first functioning example of which was demonstrated at Hughes Research Laboratories in California in May of 1960. Although at first, the invention was hailed as a solution looking for a problem, the world would never be the same. Lasers have become part of so many different aspects of life today most people have no conception of the breadth of their use.
The Sha-wan-ga Lodge conference was the brainchild of Charles H. Townes, a leading authority in the field of quantum electronics, who went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964. Apparently, he chose the High View resort because of its proximity to Manhattan, and because its rates were very reasonable after Labor Day.
Townes had just taken a job that summer at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, but he was still spending a lot of time at Columbia University in New York, where some of the most advanced work on masers, or Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, was taking place. As the 1950s drew to a close, there had been a lot of thought given to, but not much progress made in the invention of the optical type of maser, which would shortly become universally known as the laser, or Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. In fact, although Gerald Gould had coined the term as early as 1957, it would not come into common usage, even among scientists, until after the Sha-wan-ga Loge conference.
When Townes decided, at the urging of the U.S. Navy, to gather the leading figures in the field for a conference, the Catskills, then at the height of their fame, seemed the logical choice for the event. There were dozens of hotels that could have served as host, but the Sha-wan-ga Lodge was close to the city, secluded, and self-contained. It was perfect for the purpose.
The hotel high atop the Shawangunks overlooking Bloomingburgh was originally built for D.G. Carpenter in 1895. It accommodated seventy guests and advertised that its 3,000 square feet of veranda overlooked “the counties of Orange and Ulster, with the Catskills and Highlands in the distance.” Featuring fresh air and clean water in addition to an unparalleled view of the county’s majestic natural beauty, it was typical of the simple resorts of Sullivan County’s Silver Age.
Carpenter sold the hotel in 1901 to Solomon Hector, who expanded it to accommodate 125 guests. Dan and Coopersmith purchased it from Hector in 1921, and the expansion continued. In November of 1926, the lodge suffered a major fire in which the main building burned to the ground. It was eventually rebuilt, and by the 1940s was offering its guests 350 acres with “every sports facility, including a private lake, a magnificent filtered and chlorinated crystal clear pool, tennis, handball, basketball, baseball, pong-pong, badminton,” and “smart entertainment by stars of stage, radio and screen.”
Under the new owners, the Sha-Wan-Ga evolved into an exemplary Golden Age resort, complete with structured social activities and professional instructors in most every sport.
Not that the scientists and their support staffs were looking for professional instruction in any sport that September weekend. They were there to share ideas and to scout the competition. There had been an ongoing race for several years to create a workable laser, and several teams were closing in on the prize.
In his 2005 book, Beam: The Race to Make the Laser, Jeff Hecht outlines in detail the competition among several scientists to go from maser to laser. Hecht writes that the Sha-wan-ga Lodge conference imparted the final impetus.
“The organizers invited almost everyone who was anyone in maser and laser research,” he writes. “Over 160 scientists showed up, not counting more than a dozen students and others listed as ‘conference staff.’ Today, the Shawanga [sic] Lodge conference is fabled as marking the birth of laser research. Ironically virtually all of the 66 papers presented dealt with microwave masers or other research rather than lasers. Only two, by Schawlow and Javan, specifically covered optical masers. Yet laser ideas were in the air.”
In his own 1999 book, How the Laser Happened, Townes admits the conference was not specifically about lasers, but the shared ideas that resulted from the papers presented at Sha-wan-ga Lodge—and more importantly, from the conversations that took place there– certainly helped nudge the research into the optical maser forward. Undoubtedly, the first operational laser would have debuted much later in our history if not for those three days of fruitful discussion in High View, now fittingly called “the conference that changed the world.”
Photos: Above, an aerial view of the Sha-wan-ga Lodge in High View circa 1960; and below, conference attendees pose at the Sha-wan-ga Lodge in September, 1959. There are eight Nobel laureates in this photo. Both Photos courtesy www.shawanga.com