Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina to Baptist parents. He graduated with a bachelor's degrees in physics and modern languages from Furman University in 1935. He graduated summa cum laude. He then completed his M.A. in physics from Duke University in 1936 and his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1939. His wrote a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins. He worked at Bell Labs and later joined the faculty at Columbia University. Townes headed the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C from 1959-1961 . From 1961-1967, he served as provost and professor of physics at MIT. He joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley in 1967. Currently, he works at Berkeley.
Towner was known for his role in the invention of the maser and the laser. In December 1953, Towner and two of his students completed the first device which used ammonia molecules to amplify microwave radiation. It was named maser, an acronym for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation". In 1958, Townes and Schawlow constructed a similar device using light which is known as laser.
Townes is a Protestant Christian, and is a member of the United Church of Christ. According to Townes, "science and religion [are] quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge."
- Townes, Charles H. The Convergence of Science and Religion (1966). Accessed 31 January 2008
- Harvard Gazette, June 16, 2005 Laser's inventor predicts meeting of science, religion