Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Three Men We Should All Be Thanking

From left to right, Charles Kao, Willard Boyle, and George Smith, won the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday for their work that led to digital cameras and fiber-optic cables. (Reuters and NAE)

Now that digital photography and the Internet are a daily part of most people's lives, it is only natural to thank the inventors of this revolutionary technology: Willard Boyle, George Smith, and Charles Kao. These three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday for their work back in the 1960s.

Bell Lab researchers Willard Boyle, left, and George Smith, invented what would become the charge-coupled device, CCD, in a discussion of less than an hour in 1969. (Associated Press)

Since I am a photographer, I will first give a brief story on Willard Boyle and George Smith. In 1969, these scientists were trying to develop new memory chips for data storage. Boyle was working on something he called a PicturePhone. One day they met in Boyle's office in Murray Hill, N.J., and discussed ideas. In less than an hour they came up with an idea for an image sensor that could turn light into digital data. Within a week they had built a prototype of a CCD, or charge-coupled device. This device eliminated the need for photographers and videographers to capture footage on film. Acting like a camera's eye, a CCD gathers and reads light onto a grid of electronic pixels that can be transferred to computers and televisions. The CCD is used in today's digital cameras and Hubble Space Telescope.

Graphic of how a CCD, or the eye of a camera (also known as a sensor), turns light into electronic signals that can be viewed on computer and television screens. (Source: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Charles Kao, who received half of the $1.4 million in prize money awarded to the scientists, helped make fiber-optic cables usable for the modern phone and data traffic, and the circulatory system of the Internet. In 1966, Kao made a discovery that let light travel over great distances using optical glass fibers. Light can carry a lot more data than microwaves or radio waves. At the time, impurities in the glass fibers absorbed much of the light. While working in Harlow, England, Kao developed a way to get rid of the impurities. Today optical fibers transfer words, sounds, and images around the world in a split second. If we were to unravel all of the glass fibers that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over one billion kilometers long – which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25,000 times – and is increasing by thousands of kilometers every hour.

Charles Kao works on an early experiment with fiber optics at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory in the U.K. in the 1960s. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Artistic view of global communication. (Source: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

(Source: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

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