Science/Technology

NJ man's discovery lands Nobel Prize

Tuesday, October 06, 2009
George E. Smith, Nobel prize winner

George E. Smith, 79, holds a display with a photograph of the first video telephone and some early CCD chips at his home in Waretown, N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009, after it was announced that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics. Smith along with Willard S. Boyle, 85, were honored for inventing the eye of the digital camera, a sensor able to transform light into a large number of pixels, the tiny points of color that are the building blocks of every digital image. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Anyone who has ever taken a digital photograph, uploaded a video to YouTube, or seen photos of distant objects in space knows George Smith's work.

Yet the unassuming retiree from a bayfront community in southern Ocean County was largely anonymous - until a caller with a Swedish accent left a message on his phone early Tuesday.

The 79-year-old former Bell Labs researcher won the Nobel Prize in physics along with a former co-worker for their 1969 invention. The device would become the eye of the digital camera, a sensor that transforms light into the tiny points of color that are the building blocks of every digital image.

"It does do wonders for one's ego," Smith said. "People obviously like taking pictures. Look at all the cell-phone cameras and cameras in your computer. That's using this technology."

Smith invented the device along with fellow Bell Labs researcher Willard Boyle, who now lives in Nova Scotia.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their breakthrough, called a charge-coupled device or CCD, "revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film." It described the technology as having built on Albert Einstein's discovery of the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the Nobel physics prize in 1921.

Boyle, in a phone call to the academy, said he is reminded of his work with Smith "when I go around these days and see everybody using our little digital cameras, everywhere."

Their work also made possible the transmission of images of features of Mars like its red desert taken by digital cameras in space.

Before Tuesday's announcement, 11 Bell Labs researchers had already been awarded six Nobel prizes in physics for work done at the labs, which were founded in 1925 in New York.

Researchers there had a role in formulating the Big Bang theory, they developed the transistor, developed some of the earliest data networks and proposed the first cellular network.

Bell Labs President Jeong Kim said it was unusual but not unheard of that researchers would win this year's prize for work they did three decades ago.

"Proper recognition takes time," he said.

Smith was asleep in his home on a lagoon in Waretown, a boating and fishing community on Barnegat Bay, when the phone rang early Tuesday - at 5:43 a.m., to be precise. But he didn't get out of bed in time to answer the call, which went into voice mail.

"It was a message in a Swedish accent, so we knew something was up," said his wife, Janet Murphy said.

Smith rushed to the Web site of the Nobel committee and saw that the announcement was to be made momentarily. The phone rang again shortly with the good news.

Within a few hours, reporters were calling from all over the world: Germany, South America, Austria.

"I was elated," said the soft-spoken Smith, who said he and his wife have no exotic plans for the $250,000 he won as his share of the prize.

They sailed the world on their 35-foot sailboat Apogee, a voyage that took 17 years. It needs some repairs, but that's about it in terms of future expenditures.

"I'm very happy with what I have right here," Smith said. "We'll probably just do some very local sailing, up and down on Barnegat Bay. Right now, what I really want is a second cup of coffee."

- Associated Press Writer Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel contributed to this story.

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