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Leaders in Innovation

How Willard Boyle’s Invention Enabled Digital Photography

Responsible for co-inventing the charge-coupled device (CCD), an innovation that led to the popularization of digital imaging, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Willard Boyle’s contributions to the study of solid state physics are profound.


Early Life

Boyle was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, on Aug. 19, 1924. When he was 3, his family moved to Quebec, where his dad served as the doctor for a logging community called Chaudiere, around 220 miles north of Quebec City. Boyle grew up removed from many modern conveniences, and his family primarily traveled by means of a dogsled.

Boyle was home schooled by his mother until the ninth grade when he attended Lower Canada College, a private elementary and secondary school located in Montreal. After high school, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy but soon realized that he was prone to seasickness. Because of this, he applied to the Fleet Air Arm and trained to fly and land Spitfire planes. However, World War II ended soon after he completed his training and he never saw active combat.


Little Cameras All Over the World

Boyle earned a master’s degree in 1948 and a doctorate in physics in 1950 from McGill University. In 1953, he accepted a job at Bell Laboratories. While his time at Bell Labs led to many important contributions, including inventing the first laser to be used in medicine and helping NASA select landing sites for manned lunar landings, his development of the CCD surpassed those accomplishments.

After just one hour of brainstorming with his colleague and fellow NIHF Inductee George E. Smith, the two conceived of a device that could capture light, store it and display the information by converting it into electrical charges. 

Using the photoelectric effect, an idea theorized by Albert Einstein describing how light creates small currents when shined on a piece of metal, Boyle and Smith overcame the challenge of designing an image sensor that could “gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, pixels, in a short time.”

The CCD revolutionized photography and was largely responsible for the wide-scale adoption of digital photography over film. For this achievement, Boyle and Smith were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009. After winning the award, Boyle provided a straightforward explanation of his achievement: “We are the ones who started this profusion of little cameras all over the world.” 


A Lasting Legacy 

While they have largely been replaced by NIHF Inductee Eric R. Fossum’s CMOS image sensors in consumer-grade digital cameras and smartphones due to their improved reliability and performance and inexpensive production cost, CCDs remain an incredibly useful tool for astronomers and are found in some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

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