Willard Boyle: The Scientist

By Howard Akler

The year was 1969. AT&T, Bell Labs’ parent company, was promoting its new Picturephone. The device, a cross between an old rotary phone and a small black-and-white TV set, would bring higher phone bills; a three-minute conference call would cost $200. The project would eventually be scrapped; in the meantime, Jack Morton, head of advanced research at Bell Labs, AT&T’s R&D arm, was interested in new ideas.  

The Bell Labs building, in New Jersey, was designed with collaboration in mind. There were long hallways, lined with the offices of scientists from different stripes. A physicist who stepped out for coffee might bump into a computer scientist, a mathematician, or an electrical engineer. Impromptu chit-chat could nudge a project along.  

Indeed, Bell Labs was nicknamed “The Idea Factory.” Much of the technology that drives the 21st century was first developed in these halls: the transistor, key component of most digital devices; the photovoltaic cell, used in all solar-powered products; the original cellular phone system; both UNIX and C, which are the basis for today’s more advanced computer operating systems and programming languages. And, of course, the charge coupled device (CCD), the initial step toward digital imaging. 

Morton checked in with Bill Boyle, who already had several patents to his name, including the “semiconductor injection laser” and the “continuous red ruby laser.” Boyle called a colleague down the hall, George Smith, and asked him to drop by after lunch. The pair kicked around ideas. One of the first things that came up was Einstein’s concept of the photo-electric effect, which occurs when light is shined onto a piece of metal and a small electrical current flows through it.  

Boyle’s branch of science was solid state physics, which involves the electromagnetic behaviour of rigid materials, like metal. Smith worked in applied physics and was exceptional at solving engineering problems. Together, they hashed out the concept for the charge coupled device (CCD), which uses a flat silicon chip to capture and store light before transforming it into a large number of digitized image points, aka pixels, all in a split second.  

Willard S. Boyle, left, and George E. Smith in 1974. Image courtesy of the Bell Laboratories Archive.

They did and redid the math on a blackboard. They sketched out a design. They were confident that they had something big. The entire brainstorm took just over an hour. When the prototype was built, it worked on the first try. Several months later, at a New York City conference called “The Future of Integrated Circuits,” Boyle presented a paper on the CCD. As he recounted, “all hell broke loose.”  

Fellow scientists came calling with all kinds of questions. Back at Bell Labs, another colleague, Michael Tompsett, took the concept further and built the first CCD camera and it wasn’t long before other companies became interested in the broader applications of the CCD. By the time Boyle and Smith were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics, those applications had already become quite clear. 

At age 81, Boyle was able to looked back on a lifetime of scientific discovery and dispel the myth of the lone genius and the Eureka! moment.  

After 26 years at Bell Labs, he’d held several “director” titles: director of space science and exploratory studies; executive director of device development; executive director of the communication science division. But regardless of what it said on his business card, Boyle always understood the value of multi-disciplinary collaboration 

“I think most of the really big ideas come not from people in tiny little boxes,” he told the Toronto Star in 2006, “but from people who are broadly educated in their field, so they understand it in depth. That’s where the possibility for real innovation takes place.”