A Brief History of Williard Boyle and George Smith, CCD Inventors and Nobel Winners

Illustration for article titled A Brief History of Williard Boyle and George Smith, CCD Inventors and Nobel Winners

Williard "Mr. Modesty" Boyle and George "Three Page Dissertation" Smith, sailors extraordinaire and co-winners of this year's Nobel prize in physics deserve time in our spotlight: They invented the CCD image sensors which gave our digital cameras eyes.


It took them a while to get there, but once they crossed paths, Boyle and Smith quickly got to working on our beloved CCD image sensors, changing our digital photographs forever. And one day, as the rest of the world had their eyes on the moon in 1969, they finalized their device, which would let us capture images of it.


Williard Boyle had a brief teaching career after his stint in the Royal British Navy and earning his BSc, MSc, and PhD from McGill University. He then moved on to join Bell Labs, working up to being director of the Space Science and Exploratory Studies department where he provided "support for the Apollo space program and help[ed] to select lunar landing sites." After some time away from that, he "returned to Bell Labs in 1964, working on the development of integrated circuits." All the while it was remarked that he truly was a modest and "self-effacing" man, almost a stereotype of the quiet genius.

While we don't know whether he was cocky or modest, George E. Smith followed a vaguely similar path: he served in the US Navy, then earned a BSc from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he did in fact write a dissertation a mere three pages long. He, too, then joined Bell Labs and began to research lasers and semiconductor devices.

Yes, with their beginnings in space exploration and lasers, it seems almost obvious that these two were bound to come up with something incredible, but I doubt that they even dreamed about inventing something that we would use or see results of on a daily basis.


Dearest Williard, beloved George: Today we thank you for your inventions and congratulate you on your Nobel prize. After all, without you, our porn wouldn't be the high-quality digital video we so enjoy. [Digital Photography Review and Wikipedia and Wikipedia]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


I work for Alcatel-Lucent -which inherited Bell Labs- and their story got published in our intranet on the last days as well as some collateral. This video was posted by the company and its a 1978 recap on how CCDs work and how they were invented. Its a bit long but very interesting. Apparently they invented the thing in a couple of hours and had a prototype a few days later.