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Willard Boyle: The Legacy

By: Howard Akler

Instagram. TikTok. Zoom. Every selfie, every picture on the Internet. You name it and Willard Boyle has his fingerprints all over it. The CCD is the “eye” of every digital camera. It is also the key component in computer scanners, photocopiers, fax machines, and HDTV. It is used in bar code scanners and medical imaging equipment. This device, smaller than a dime, allows us to see the depths of the ocean floor and the far off reaches of outer space. This last application will perhaps be Boyle’s greatest legacy.  

Even before the invention of the CCD, Boyle had a role in space exploration. In 1962, he joined BellComm, a subsidiary of Bell Labs, and became Director of Space Science and Exploratory Studies. For the next two years, he provided technical support to the Apollo Space Program and helped with the selection of lunar landing sites.  

Jump ahead to 1990, when NASA launched its Hubble Space Telescope. The CCD-driven technology could see 8 billion light years away; at the time, these were the deepest images of the universe ever taken1  

The Hubble could spot galaxies that had been formed 600 million years after the Big Bang, and determined that most are in orbit around a black hole. This data helped pin down the age of the universe — 13.8 billion years old, roughly three times more than the age of Earth.  

The Hubble provided more than one million observations, which eventually informed 19,000 peer-reviewed publications. Astronomers later said the CCD was the most significant contribution to astronomy since Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey invented the telescope in 1608. Boyle had contributed to the vanguard of human endeavour: the search for the origin of the universe. 

Hubble Reaches New Milestone in Mystery of Universe’s Expansion Rate. Image courtesy of Hubble Telescope Images, NASA.