Two win prestigious engineering award

Two former Bell Laboratories researchers who invented a microchip that became the building block for devices ranging from digital cameras to powerful telescopes were named winners Wednesday of the 2006 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel award.

Willard S. Boyle, 81, and George E. Smith, 75, invented the imaging microchip, known as a charge-coupled device, in 1969. The chip converts light particles, or photons, into packets of electrical charges that are nearly instantaneously shifted in rows to the edge of the chip for scanning.

“People don’t know the nuances of CCDs but they know they have a camcorder and satellite images of the weather,” said William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, the nonprofit society that oversees the $500,000 award, which the two men will split. Wulf noted that the imaging chip also paved the way for live television broadcasts from portable cameras.

Smith, who lives in Barnegat Bay, N.J., said that he and Boyle came up with the basic structure of their chip during a brainstorming session that lasted less than an hour on an early October afternoon. Boyle, his boss, had called him into his office to ponder how they could meet the company’s requests for new memory chip concepts. The design they produced could indeed store data but it soon became apparent that its greatest advantages lay in image sensing.

“It was a time when innovation was rampant,” Boyle said yesterday from his home in his native Nova Scotia. “We had a good understanding of fundamental physics at Bell Labs so we could play with a lot of ideas.”

Wulf said that the prize might strike some as a bittersweet reminder of the subsequent decline of Bell Labs as a research powerhouse. The American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, its owner when Boyle and Smith designed the chip, was broken up in 1984, and Lucent Technologies, the subsidiary that inherited most of it, has been forced to restrict the research that Bell Labs supports.

AT&T’s work on the chip tapered off after its efforts to develop a consumer picture phone foundered. Other companies–particularly Japanese giants like Sony, which introduced the first digital camera; Panasonic; and Matsushita–became the leaders in inventing consumer applications for the chip during the 1970s and 1980s. Today they dominate manufacturing of the chips.

There is a hopeful message in the CCD story, according to Robert Buderi, the author of several studies on corporate research. “There’s nothing today like the Bell Labs of the 1960s but this was an invention highly targeted toward practical goals,” Buderi said. “This kind of work is still being done at places like IBM, Microsoft, Texas Instruments and Intel.”

Some labs are focused on a new imaging chip design that is being introduced as a cheaper, less power-hungry alternative to CCDs for tasks that do not require finely detailed images. The new design, a variation on a standard microprocessor, makes it relatively simple to build imaging and other electronic functions on a single chip.

News source: Cnet


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