Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Deceased--Willard S. Boyle

Willard S. Boyle
August 19th, 1924 to May 7th, 2011

Willard S. Boyle, left, and George E. Smith in 1974. Their work on the charge-coupled device won them a Nobel Prize in 2009.

"Willard S. Boyle, Father of Digital Eye, Dies at 86"


Douglas Martin

May 9th, 2011

The New York Times

Willard S. Boyle, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for helping to develop a device that is at the heart of virtually every camcorder, digital camera and telescope in use, died on Saturday in Truro, Nova Scotia. He was 86.

His friend Stuart Semple said the death was “kidney related.”

Dr. Boyle’s prolific scientific career included inventing the first laser to be used in medicine and helping to choose sites on the moon for NASA’s manned landings.

But nothing eclipsed his invention — in only an hour — of the charge-coupled device, or CCD, with George E. Smith, his colleague at Bell Laboratories.

The device, smaller than a dime, has become ubiquitous. It is the eye behind every picture on the Internet, every digital and video camera, every computer scanner, copier machine and high-definition television.

Its work extends from supermarket barcode readers to the Hubble Space Telescope, from fax machines to the cameras that roamed Mars and the oceans’ floor.

It works by taking advantage of what is called the photoelectric effect, which was explained by Einstein and brought him the Nobel in 1921. The photoelectric effect is the name given to the observation that when light is shined onto a piece of metal, a small current flows through the metal.

The CCD devised by Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith captures light and stores it, then displays it by converting it into electrical charges. “The challenge when designing an image sensor,” the Nobel committee said, “was to gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, or pixels, in a short time.”

The effect, it continued, “transformed photography, as sight could now be captured electronically instead of on film.”

Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith split half of the $1.4 million physics prize awarded by the Nobel committee. The other half went to Charles K. Kao for research that led to the development of fiber optic cables.

Willard Sterling Boyle was born on Aug. 19, 1924, in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and raised in the village of Wallace in the same province. He lived in Wallace at his death.

When he was 3, his family moved to northern Quebec, where his father, a doctor, set up a practice in a logging community. With the nearest school 30 miles away, his mother home-schooled Willard, and the family got around by dog sled.

For high school his parents sent him to Lower Canada College, a private school in Montreal. After graduating, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy and became a Spitfire pilot. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from McGill University in Montreal, then stayed on to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the school’s radiation laboratory.

After teaching at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, he joined the research staff of Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., in 1953.

Dr. Boyle and a co-worker, Don Nelson, developed the ruby laser in 1962. With another colleague, David Thomas, he was given a patent that helped lead to the development of the semiconductor injection laser, which is found in many electronic appliances. In 1962 he was assigned to a Bell subsidiary that offered technical support to NASA. There he helped select lunar landing sites before returning to Bell labs in 1964.

Dr. Boyle credited the vigorous brainstorming sessions at Bell, often over coffee, for inspiring the CCD. He and Dr. Smith came up with the idea at a blackboard and immediately “knew we had something special,” he said in his Nobel lecture. The first model based on their idea worked after only an hour’s effort, Dr. Boyle said.

After Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith won the Nobel, several other Bell scientists came forward to claim credit for the CCD discovery. They said the Nobel winners’ achievement, while legitimate, had nothing to do with imaging. These critics said that the original purpose of the work was to develop a memory circuit, and that that was what Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith first thought they had accomplished.

Eugene Gordon said that he and another Bell researcher, Michael Tompsett, were at least as responsible for determining that the CCD could revolutionize all sorts of imaging. “They wouldn’t know an imaging device if it stared them in the face,” Dr. Gordon told the publication Digital Journal.

The first mention of the CCD as an imaging device in The New York Times was in 1978, crediting Dr. Tompsett with patenting a device that would yield video cameras small enough to fit in one’s palm. Its patent number was 4,085,456.

The patent number of the device Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith developed was 3,858,232 and was granted four years earlier. Many contend that this patent paved the way for Dr. Tompsett’s work, the importance of which is not questioned. The Nobel committee does not publicly discuss its decisions.

Dr. Boyle defended his work. In an interview with Digital Journal, he said: “I can clearly remember the day that George and I developed the concept for the CCD. It’s pretty firm in my mind. I’ve documentation that disproves most of what they’re saying, and the rest of what they’re saying is not at all logical.”

Dr. Smith was more brusque, calling the detractors “liars.”

Dr. Boyle’s survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Betty Joyce; a son; two daughters; 10 grandchildren; and at least one great-grandchild. Another son died last year.

After winning the Nobel, Dr. Boyle summarized his great achievement at a news conference: “We are the ones who started this profusion of little cameras all over the world.”

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