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Charles Freed, pioneer of laser technologies, dies at age 84

A Russian prison camp survivor, he worked at Lincoln Lab for 32 years and designed and built many laser systems still in use today.
Charles Freed SM ’54, EE ’58, a pioneer in laser technologies
Charles Freed SM ’54, EE ’58, a pioneer in laser technologies

Charles Freed SM ’54, EE ’58, who survived a Russian prison camp during World War II, escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and became a pioneer in laser technologies during a 32-year career at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, died Aug. 4 of a brain tumor. He was 84.

“Charles Freed was extraordinary, escaping from severe persecution in Russia and contributing very importantly to laser science,” said Nobel laureate Charles Townes, with whom Freed collaborated for decades. “His carbon-dioxide lasers have been critical for my measurements of the sizes, changes, and dynamics of stars, as well as for many other important applications.”

Born Karoly Fried in 1926 in Budapest, Hungary, Freed showed early signs of the vibrant curiosity that would later come to define his career: As a child, he took apart the family phonograph several times to find the “little people” inside.

During World War II, he was sent to the ghetto with the other Jews of Miskolc, then taken into the Hungarian army as a laborer, and then captured and held as a prisoner of war and laborer in Russia for 3-1/2 years. He returned to Hungary only to learn that nearly all of his family had perished. He was accepted as a student at New York University, but the Hungarians denied him an exit visa. Eventually he escaped in 1949, and wrote in a letter: “I appreciate freedom above all. Without that the whole life is only an imprisonment and fear”. 

He immigrated to New York, and received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from NYU in 1952. He enrolled as a graduate student at MIT that same year. As an MIT graduate student, he lived at Ashdown House and worked in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) on high-energy electron beam sources and vacuum systems compatible with electron beams. He considered himself very fortunate to have been a member of Professor Louis Smullin’s laboratory: “The graduate students and visiting scientists came from all over the world but fast became a remarkably close-knit family where differences in nationality, race, and religion actually enriched our daily lives,” he recalled years later.

In 1954, he met and fell in love with Florence Wallach, then a Harvard graduate student; they married in 1956. From 1958 to 1962, he worked at Raytheon Company as a senior engineer in the research division and as a group leader for special microwave device operations. In 1959, he become a U.S. citizen and changed his name from Fried to Freed.

In February 1962, he joined the staff of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and began a career in laser research after completing a summer course on the newly invented laser (then called an optical maser). In 1966, he developed the first stable carbon dioxide laser, and shortly thereafter developed a second generation “ultra-stable” carbon dioxide laser, with 1,000-fold improvement in frequency stability. Subsequently, he developed a third-generation laser that was highly modular and therefore simpler to construct, easier to operate and less expensive. In 1978, he was promoted to the rank of senior staff at Lincoln Laboratory; he retired in 1994 but continued to do consulting work. For example, in 2009-10 he worked on applying carbon dioxide lasers to the problem of global warming.

Freed’s lasers are still in use today for diverse applications, ranging from wind-shear detection at airports to high-resolution imaging laser radars for missile defense to basic research problems, such as determining secondary frequency standards and studies of the universe. Two lasers he designed and built are part of the MIT Museum’s Science and Technology collection.

In all, Freed published 61 original research articles, technical reports and book chapters on a variety of topics, and presented his work at scientific conferences around the world. He received numerous awards and honors, including being named a Life Fellow of the IEEE in 1979 for “Contributions to gas lasers and the pioneering development of ultra-stable lasers”. In 1999, he was named a Fellow of the National Military Sensors Symposia for his contributions to missile guidance radar, laser radar and imaging of space objects. When asked recently to describe his professional strengths, he replied: “A knack for engineering that is very practical, and always having on-hand plenty of parts”.

Family members describe Freed, who lived in Lincoln, Mass., as a loving and unfailingly devoted husband, father and grandfather. He also loved music, skating, and swimming. He is survived by his wife, Florence, daughters Josie and Lisa E. Freed '82, SM '82, PhD '88, son-in-law Theodore D. Sussman PhD '87, and granddaughters Sara and Rachel Freed Sussman, whom he treasured and helped to take care of since they were born.

Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to MIT’s Graduate Community, by check payable to MIT to B. Kellermann, 600 Memorial Dr. W98-500; Cambridge, MA 02139 or credit card: Please state the gift is in memory of Charles Freed.

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