First prototype ammonia maser and inventor Charles H. Townes. The ammonia nozzle is at left in the box, the four brass rods at center is the quadrupole state selector, and the resonant cavity is at right. The 24 GHz microwaves exit through the vertical waveguide Townes is adjusting. At bottom are the vacuum pumps.
A hydrogen radio frequency discharge, the first element inside a hydrogen maser (see description below)

A maser (…ôr/, an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. The first maser was built by Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon, and Herbert J. Zeiger at Columbia University in 1953. Townes, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work leading to the maser. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and as extremely low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes and deep space spacecraft communication ground stations.

Modern masers can be designed to generate electromagnetic waves at not only microwave frequencies but also radio and infrared frequencies. For this reason Charles Townes suggested replacing "microwave" with the word "molecular" as the first word in the acronym maser.[1]

The laser works by the same principle as the maser, but produces higher frequency coherent radiation at visible wavelengths. The maser was the forerunner of the laser, inspiring theoretical work by Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow that led to the invention of the laser in 1960 by Theodore Maiman. When the coherent optical oscillator was first imagined in 1957, it was originally called the "optical maser". This was ultimately changed to laser for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". Gordon Gould is credited with creating this acronym in 1957.


The theoretical principles governing the operation of a maser were first described by Joseph Weber of the University of Maryland, College Park at the Electron Tube Research Conference in 1952 in Ottawa,[2] with a summary published in the June 1953 Transactions of the Institute of Radio Engineers Professional Group on Electron Devices,[3] and simultaneously by Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov from Lebedev Institute of Physics at an All-Union Conference on Radio-Spectroscopy held by the USSR Academy of Sciences in May 1952, subsequently published in October 1954.

Independently, Charles Hard Townes, James P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger built the first ammonia maser at Columbia University in 1953. This device used stimulated emission in a stream of energized ammonia molecules to produce amplification of microwaves at a frequency of about 24.0 gigahertz.[4] Townes later worked with Arthur L. Schawlow to describe the principle of the optical maser, or laser,[5] of which Theodore H. Maiman created the first working model in 1960.

For their research in the field of stimulated emission, Townes, Basov and Prokhorov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964.[1]