38. Arthur Schawlow

“Louis’ intro to West End Blues said it all!”

During the years 1946 – 1951 I was drawing my “CAT” character cartoons for The Record Changer magazine, a specialized monthly catering to collectors of rare, 78RPM shellac phonograph records mainly featuring historic blues and traditional New Orleans jazz. As my character, a fanatic collector, whom the magazine editor, Gordon Gullickson dubbed “The CAT” became popular, readers began to send me ideas for gags.  I used or revised the ones I liked, and always gave credit to the contributor. One of them was a guy named Arthur Schawlow.

I had no idea who he was, but when my CAT drawing illustrating his gag was published, I received a letter from him on Stanford University stationery, which gushingly told me how great he thought I was, such a super cartoonist, waving the flag for traditional jazz, etc. etc…. then just casually mentioning, “I’ve also had some success in my life, as I won The Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the laser…”

What??? >>> The Nobel Prize winning inventor of the laser, one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, thinks that I, a raw young cartoonist for a tiny circulation offset printed archaic jazz journal, am doing something great???? Is this gent one of those storied “Absent-Minded Professors”? Or is he just fooling with me?

I knew enough about lasers over the years to know they changed the world. I’d assumed that the word Laser must have been the name of some German scientist. Now I find that it’s an acronym for ”Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” and was essentially the invention of Charles Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.  That this Professor Schawlow was equating my mini accomplishments with his seemed be a level 10 absurdity!

Lasers run CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, laser printers, cold-cutting and welding of metals, bloodless surgery, precise measurement of the distance to the moon, eyesight restoration by cataract removal, aircraft navigation, fingerprint detection, fossil dating, barcode scanners, microchip machining, dentistry, guided missiles, telemetry for space shuttles, spectacular light show projectors, precision engraving, camera exposure and night vision beams… no end of vital and amazing application… To compare all of this to my silly cartoon was not only laughable but hilarious!

But however grotesque the comparison, a connection did occur to me: Schawlow and Townes created this world changing invention as employees of Bell Laboratories, and as such they were paid one dollar each, for the patents, which were registered in Bell Lab’s name and worth more than any laser device could calculate. The only financial benefit to Schawlow and Townes was their share of the Nobel prize money!

In my case of somewhat lesser magnitude, I created Tom Terrific as an employee of CBS-Terrytoons, so it was thus copyrighted in CBS’ name.  I got my salary and a thinly plated exit payment, but I haven’t even the muscle to get Viacom, the present owners, to release Tom Terrific on a DVD, and at least earn some royalties. OK, it’s no laser level loss, but for me it’s painful enough…

It wasn’t until 1985, nearly 40 years later, that Art and I met personally. Zdenka and I, thinking communism in Czechoslovakia would never end, had bought a small bungalow in the Westwood Park neighborhood of central San Francisco.* Arthur Schawlow was by that time Professor Emeritus of physics at Stanford University, quite a way south of SF, but he eagerly drove up to our house to meet me, pick me up, and drive me down to Stanford to see his university study. It was on that drive and visit that I learned about the real Nobel Laureate Professor Arthur Leonard Schawlow.

The instant he turned the starter key on his land cruiser, loud New Orleans jazz music filled the car, and as we jabbered excitedly about the band, “Art,” as he wanted me to call him, was keeping time to the music by rhythmically pumping the gas pedal.  As a result the car lurched forward in pulsing jerks,. By the time we finally reached Stanford I was dizzily carsick, but Art was joyfully unaffected, obviously conditioned to intermittent forward motion!

The next surprise, as my vision returned after the trip, was in his “study.” I had expected to see a physics laboratory, but instead was record and tape playing equipment and the latest computer of the time.  His latest “scientific experiment” he showed me was a graphic recreation of the opening trumpet notes of Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of  West end Blues!

He did finally get around to showing me a laser demo, the one he used on his lectures and for his students.  He blew up a black toy balloon inside a clear balloon. He took aim at the double balloons with a toy laser pistol copied from a Buck Rogers toy “death ray” gun.  POP!  When he pulled the trigger the inner black balloon was gone. but the outer clear balloon was still proudly puffed. The laser beam went through the clear balloon and popped the black one.  Great fun!

We were immediately best friends and remained so to the end of his life. On each of our subsequent visits to San Francisco, Art had arranged special jazz concerts for me and demonstrated the latest miniature sound recording devices he acquired from his professional visits to Japan.  “They invite me to lecture about lasers, and I accept because I’ll have a chance to get the latest sound recording gadgets not yet available in America!” he gleefully told me.

He had become increasingly overweight on my succeeding visits, and losing his élan. This brilliant innovator had an adult autistic son, who was virtually unable or unwilling to speak. One of Art’s latest inventions was a set of intuitive icon writing keyboards, to enable communication with Arthur junior. It was only partially successful.  A final blow was the death of his charming wife, Aurelia, and he was unprepared to care for himself or his house.

He took rooms at a professional retirement institution, where he set up his computer and sound systems, so he could always have his music. On our last visit to him there, he had arranged a special live concert for us by his favorite band of New Orleans style veterans, the Magnolia Quintet. By that time he was in a wheel chair, and disclosed to me that he had advanced prostate cancer. (His Wikipedia entry says leukemia, but he told me differently.)

Whichever, it was clearly bad news, and now the equipment in his room included an oxygen resuscitation device. He was in pain, and couldn’t stand the slightest touch of a handshake. Unbearably sad to see this great man, a scientific genius who claimed to be my fan, with my cartoon framed on his wall, succumb so painfully.

*It happens that I am writing this chapter on a visit to our same San Francisco house! When the democratic revolution of 1989 transformed communist Czechoslovakia into the democratic Czech Republic. We decided to stay, and turned this San Francisco house over to Zdenka’s son David, where he now lives with his wife Heidi and three kids.

Arthur Schawlow, laser inventor, loved his computers almost as he loved traditional jazz!

Well, I can’t let the subject of great inventions go by without the opportunity to brag about my own contribution to the advancement of technology. My title for this absolutely true story is:

The BBC and Me

In my early days in Communist Czechoslovakia, my strongest need was access to uncensored news and information. Before the time of the internet, satellite dishes, or any chance to get non-communist newspapers, my only reliable source was the BBC World Service, tuned in on a tiny shortwave radio.  Of course, the Czech language broadcasts from the BBC were intensely jammed, and impossible to listen to.  But, as the only foreign language taught in Czech schools was Russian, the government didn’t feel it worth the expense and bother to jam the English language broadcasts of either the BBC or the Voice of America.  Even as an American, I preferred the BBC,as they broadcast in English continuously, and had a much wider range of programming than the VOA Europe.

In June 1973, I was listening to a show aimed at underdeveloped countries needing technical advances.  They were announcing a contest for the most useful simple inventions. They were offering a complete set of the finest British tools for the best and most useful invention idea.  Zdenka and I had recently bought our mountain cottage, and decent tools could not be bought here. Solid British tools were just what I needed.

I had a sudden inspiration. I’d been bouncing around a gag idea about a hollow chopstick. I thought back to my days as a technical illustrator at North American Aviation. So I whipped up a gag diagram indicating the functional benefits of hollow chopsticks, which could serve the double duty as drinking straws, and I sent the idea to the BBC in London along with a mock serious written proposal. I figured t would at least hand the broadcasters a laugh. I’ve dug out the following documents from near the bottom of a great pile of old papers in my studio.

Time went by, and I forgot about it. It was five months later, in mid-November, that our phone rang. It was a call from a very serious commercial attaché at the United State Embassy in Prague.

“Mr. Deitch, I’m delighted to reach you! We’ve had an inquiry from the British Broadcasting Company, ask if we could locate you.  It seems you have won the First Prize in their Best Invention contest!”

My jaw dropped to my lap, as the proud attaché raved on:

“This is a wonderful tribute to American ingenuity, Mr. Deitch, which we would like to publicize!  Would you mind telling me the nature of your invention?”

Yikes. I knew he was expecting an improved plow, a simple to operate water-well digger, a clever pest-control method….   But I had to brazen it out with the truth…

“Well actually, it was a proposed hollow chopstick.”

 There was a long, silent pause. Then:

 “Mr. Deitch, you’re kidding me!”

 Unfortunately for the Embassy’s hopes for a world class American bragging opportunity, I was not kidding him.

My happiness was undiminished.  In due course I received a registered letter from the Czechoslovak Customs Office informing me that a large steel case from the Brittool Company of England had arrived, addressed to me, which needed to be opened for inspection in my presence.  Much explaining, and many paper forms were required, and customs import duties had to be paid.

It was worth it; nearly 40 years later I am still using those fine British hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches.

But in those 40 years, what has become of my seismic invention?  Well, I immediately realized that the technical challenges involved in the mass production of hollow chopsticks would be daunting for the Chinese facilities of the time, so they have in the interim turned their attention to the production of simpler devices such as iPhones and iPads for the Apple Co.

2 thoughts on “38. Arthur Schawlow

  1. I remember you showing me the chopstick/straw drawing when I was 12 or so and just thinking you were “weird”. In the light of my own maturity I now realize that what I meant was “visionary”.

    It is unfortunate that none of the creators of the LASER were ever allowed a real share of the invention’s value. As well as Schawlow and Townes (who was Schawlow’s brother-in-law by the way) there was Theodore Maiman who actually built the first LASER device who, although he never won, was twice nominated for a Nobel. Maiman was also cut out of the money on the LASER. If anyone out there is of the caliber of these guys and are going to work for some big R&D firm, please, please, PLEASE read the fine print of the contract and negotiate hard if you feel you are onto something hot. Just once I’d like to see the hardworking guys in the trenches reap the rewards.

    Schawlow’s Wikipedia article gives short shrift to his Jazz scholarship. Someone who personally knew that part of his life should consider expanding it (hint, hint).

    • genedeitch on December 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm said: Edit
      Seth, the first thing I had to do when I was hired as Creative Director of Terrytoons, was to sign a waiver with the parent corporation, CBS Television Sales, inc. assigning to them the ownership rights to whatever I created. Rembrandt Films’ Bill Snyder resorted to a fine-sounding subterfuge, including a hefty share of the “net profits,” from any films I created for him. What i was too naive at the time to realize is that there are no “net profits” in the movie business! It all added up to zero. The only company I ever worked for that has a fair attitude on creative rights is Weston Woods. From every one of the 50 films I directed for Weston Woods, from my beginning with them in 1968, I get a solid percentage of GROSS INCOME – no so-called “expenses” or any other deductions!. Right now, in my Golden Years, I am able to live nicely on my share of the sales and rentals of all those films, and children’s films are forever!

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