For Whom the Nobel Tolls …

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Class of ’55 | Light travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second. Processing discoveries takes a little longer. But thanks partly to some breakthroughs in harnessing light by three American physicists four decades ago, the October announcement that those three had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics—and that one of them was George E. Smith C’55—reached us fast enough to make it into this issue of the Gazette.

Smith, 79, and Willard S. Boyle, 85, both researchers at Bell Labs, shared half of the prize for inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit capable of transforming light into a large number of pixels. That semiconductor sensor—known as a charge-coupled device, or CCD—is the electronic eye of digital cameras. (The other half of the prize was awarded to Charles K. Kao for his role in creating optical fibers.) 

The discovery “revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film,” stated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding the prize. Though it took the Nobel Foundation 40 years to honor their achievement, Smith and Boyle had already won other major awards for their breakthrough, including the Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering. 

In September 1969, The New York Times reported, Smith and Boyle, working at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, sketched out an idea on a blackboard in Boyle’s office.

“The two of us frequently got together just to kick ideas around,” said Smith. While the initial thought was to make a new type of electronic memory, he added, “in my first notebook entry, I fully described how we would use it as an imaging device as well.”

In addition to the explosive growth of “little digital cameras,” as Boyle put it, CCDs also made possible the digital photos from the Hubble Space Telescope and the digital images of Mars taken by NASA.

“I’m hoping for an early cocktail hour today,” said Smith the day of the announcement. “Once the photographers and phone calls and reporters thin out.” 

—S.H.

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