Bell physicistWillard Boyle

A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, Boyle was a physicist who joined New Jersey’s Bell Labs in 1953. There, he helped perfect the ruby laser, developing (in 1962, with Don Nelson) the first one that could operate continuously. The same year he was named director of Space Science and Exploratory Studies at Bellcomm, a Bell Labs subsidiary in Washington D.C., to support the Apollo moon missions. Perhaps it was there that he started thinking about a problem NASA had: sending clear pictures back from space. On October 17, 1969, Boyle summoned a fellow researcher, George E. Smith, to his office to brainstorm a new idea: a simple electronic chip that could digitize light using the photoelectric effect — which concept had won Albert Einstein a Nobel Prize in 1921. In “not more than an hour,” Smith said later, what he and Boyle came up with was the Charge-Coupled Device, or CCD, which is still the basis for digital imaging today, and used not only in still and video cameras (up to and including the Hubble Space Telescope), but “scopes” that surgeons use, barcode scanners, fax machines, and more. “A young person in the middle of a civil demonstration in Syria can instantly show the rest of the world from his cellphone camera, and it’s because of what Dr. Boyle did with his colleague George Smith at Bell Labs,” said H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. “This little chip makes those pictures possible.” Boyle and Smith understood it immediately: “After making the first couple of imaging devices, we knew for certain that chemistry photography was dead,” Smith said later. Boyle and Smith shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their work. Boyle retired back to Nova Scotia in 1979, and died on May 7. He was 86.

From This is True for 15 May 2011