Schawlow was born in New York and educated at the University of Toronto, where he received his first degree in 1941 and his PhD in 1949. After a spell at Columbia University, where he worked with Charles Townes, he moved to Bell Laboratories in 1951, where he worked mostly on superconductivity. However, he continued to collaborate with Townes and in 1958 they published their famous paper on the theory of the laser, “Infrared and optical masers”. The first laser was demonstrated by Ted Maiman in 1960.

Schawlow moved to Stanford University in California in 1961 and spent the rest of his career there.