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CCD inventors secure Nobel Prize for Physics

Optical fibre pioneer also honoured

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This year's Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to Willard Sterling Boyle and George Smith, inventors of the Charge-Coupled Device (or CCD), and Charles Kuen Kao, for his pioneering work on optical fibres.

Boyle and Smith were working in Bell Labs in New Jersey when, in October 1969, they formulated the idea for the CCD. Colleagues initially dismissed the concept, but once Bell Labs had produced a working prototype, the rest was history.

Boyle later recounted that "all hell broke loose" when he shortly afterwards presented a paper about the CCD at a conference in New York pondering “The Future of Integrated Circuits”. At a stroke, he and Smith had laid the foundation for digital photography.

Charles Kuen Kao has been honoured for tackling the problem of light loss in optical fibres. In 1966, while at Standard Telephones and Cables' labs in Harlow, he realised that this loss, which severely limited the optical transmission of data, was due to imperfections in the glass, rather than an inherent flaw in the technology.

He told the BBC back in 2006: "At the time I told my annoyed wife, as I was always late home for dinner, that it could be a world shaking project! She told me to 'pull the other leg' in absolute disbelief."

He added: "I think I sensed it at the time, but I knew I would need to convince the industry worldwide."

Kao's findings met with scepticism among the engineering community, but subsequent manufacturing breakthroughs proved him right. The UK's Institute of Physics (IOP) notes that there are currently three million kilometres of optical fibre laid in the UK alone.

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, IOP chief exec, said of the trio's achievements: “Ours is the age of information and images and no two things better symbolise this than the internet and digital cameras. From kilobytes to gigabytes, and now to petabytes and exabytes, information has never been so free-flowing or, with the development of CCD, so instantly visual.

"These incredible inventors who have been responsible for transforming the world in which we live very much deserve their prize.” ®

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