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Willard Boyle: The Person

By Howard Akler

Willard Boyle helped us all see the future, but his character was formed deep in the pastoral past.  

Boyle was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1924, but at age three, his family moved to Sanmaur, a remote logging camp in Northern Quebec. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. The conditions were rough, with bitter cold and long, dark nights. They had no electricity, no plumbing. The family vehicle was a dog sled, but with the nearest school over 48 km away, Bernice Boyle decided to home-school young Bill. She taught him whatever she could. The boy was an eager student, and engaged with all he read.  

Well into his 80s, Bill could still recall the two most formative books of his youth: Science for Citizens and Mathematics for Millions, both written by Lancelot Hogben. He remembered being absolutely fascinated to learn that ancient Egyptians developed an early form of calculus to help with farming. His curiosity extended to mechanics and, of course, physics. One time, the burgeoning scientist figured out how to produce great flashes of light by attaching wires to a shiny mineral called molybdenite. Bill was amazed by his discovery and shared it with his only friends, the local lumberjacks.  

Willard S. Boyle. Image courtesy of the McGill University Archives, PR001905.

Despite all this, Bernice couldn’t help but see that her son was beginning to need more than she could provide. He needed professional teachers, and he needed peers. So, at age 14, Bill parents sent him to Lower Canada College, in Montreal. His rough-hewn upbringing was a stark contrast to those of his fellow private school students, but he soon settled in. He captained sports teams. He excelled academically, and this excellence continued at McGill University. His studies were interrupted by World War II, when he was trained to land Spitfires on aircraft carriers.  

The post-war years were vital for Bill: he married Betty Joyce in 1946; became a father to the two of his four children; and completed his PhD in physics in 1950. In 1953, he moved to New Jersey to join Bell Labs, the world famous research-and-development arm of the telecom giant AT&T. 

Bill was well-suited to the open-minded creative atmosphere at Bell Labs. He said his time there was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. “You know, it was just fun to be there,” he told the Toronto Star years later. “You had a model lab and you could make anything you wanted, no matter how sophisticated. It was right at the forefront of technology.”  

Nothing, of course, was more to the fore than the “charge coupled device” (CCD). Bill and applied physicist George Smith conceived the device, a component of digital imaging, in 1969, and the digital revolution was on its way. 

Bill retired in 1979 at age 55. He and Betty returned home, settling in Wallace, N.S. He remained curious as always. However, it wasn’t science that he explored, but art. Betty was a painter of abstract landscapes and Bill took up digital photography. Together, they helped found the Fraser, a community art gallery in nearby Tatamagouche.  

Many citizens of Wallace were unaware of Bill’s scientific accomplishments until 2009, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize and reporters and camera crews descended on the small fishing village. The acclaim continued up to his death in 2011, at the age of 86. The New York Times obituary called Bill the “father of the digital eye”.  

The young boy who once hung around around with lumberjacks had become the Nobel-winning physicist who helped to change the world.