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Digital Imaging Sensor Pioneer - Willard S. Boyle

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Karen A. Newman

As we were wrapping up this issue of Photonics Spectra, word reached us of the May 7 death in Canada of Willard S. Boyle, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the first digital imaging sensor, which led to the digital photography revolution.

Boyle shared the prize with George E. Smith, with whom he worked at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. Their CCD used the photoelectric effect theorized by Albert Einstein to transform light into electric signals. The major challenge was determining how to gather and read out those signals into a large number of pixels in a short burst of time.

According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Willard Sterling Boyle was born Aug. 19, 1924, in the Nova Scotia town of Amherst. He left Montréal’s McGill University in 1943 to be a Spitfire pilot, returning to school after the war. He earned his doctorate in physics in 1950 and taught physics briefly at Royal Military College of Canada before relocating to the US to work for Bell Labs, from which he retired in 1979.

A third recipient of the 2009 physics prize was Charles K. Kao, a founding father of fiber optics. At the time of the awards, H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics, said, “Taken together, these [two] inventions may have had a greater impact on humanity than any others in the last half century.”

There were several industry events on the calendar in April and May, including SPIE’s Defense, Security & Sensing, OSA’s CLEO, SPIE Optifab and LASER World of Photonics, to name just a few.

At DSS, Women in Optics hosted a reception featuring a presentation by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who is retired from the optical industry and is now working as a forensic genealogist. She was part of a team that successfully used process-of-elimination, genealogic detective work, and prints and DNA taken from a severed hand to identify the remains of one of 30 people who died in the 1948 crash of Northwest Flight 4422. Fitzpatrick told Photonics Media that she called upon her extensive scientific background and career in optics to help her in the very scientific analysis required to identify the remains.

At both Defense, Security & Sensing and at CLEO, town hall-type meetings were held to solicit industry comment on Harnessing Light II, a study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and others tasked in part with reviewing updates to the state of optics and photonics science since 1988 and the technological opportunities based on those advances. The study will assess the following: research trends, market and work force needs, how to translate innovation into competitive advantages, manufacturing infrastructure and the impact of photonics on the national economy.

“Photonics is in the midst of a transition from a mere specialty to a key enabling technology,” said Dr. Georg Schütte, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, while speaking at the opening event of the LASER World of Photonics Congress. He told the crowd that photonics is very much a part of the federal technology strategy, adding that the German photonics industry has recovered quite well from the economic crises.

You can view brief live reports from these events along with other interesting news of the week on Light Matters at

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2011
digital photography
A form of photography in which an electronic camera converts an image to an electronic signal that is stored in digital format on magnetic media or film.
American Institute of PhysicsAmericasBell LaboratoriesBell LabsBiophotonicsCanadaCCDCharles K. KaoColleen Fitzpatrickdefensedigital imaging sensordigital photographyDSSEditorialEuropeforensic genealogyGeorg SchutteGeorge E. SmithGermanyH. Frederick DyllaHarnessing Light IIimagingindustrialKaren A. NewmanLaser World of Photonics CongressLight MattersNational Academy of SciencesNew JerseyNobel PrizeNorthwest Flight 4422opticsSecurity & SensingSensors & DetectorsSPIE DefenseWillard S. BoyleWomen in Opticslasers

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