Willard Boyle (1924–2011)

Willard Boyle won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for helping develop a device that, as the New York Times put it, is “at the heart of virtually every camcorder, digital camera and telescope in use.” That piece of technology was the charge-coupled device or CCD, invented with with George E. Smith, his colleague at Bell Laboratories.

It works by taking advantage of the so-called the photoelectric effect, which was explained by Albert Einstein and brought him the Nobel in 1921. The photoelectric effect describes the fact 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 result, as Boyle put it after winning the Nobel Prize, was that he and his colleague Smith “are the ones who started this profusion of little cameras all over the world.”

Boyle was the author or co-author of other very significant achievements: he and a co-worker developed the first ruby laser to emit a continuous beam of light in 1962. With another colleague, he was given a patent that helped lead to the development of the semiconductor injection laser, which is found in many electronic appliances.