© Tomas Hajek | Dreamstime.com – Nobel laureate professor Dr. George E. Smith

Born in White Plains, New York in 1930, George Smith was headed for the US Navy after graduating high school. Not ready to leave education completely, however, he decided to take a maths course while stationed at an air base in Miami.

After serving as a meteorologist with the Navy for four years, and with the financial support of the GI Bill of Rights, he successfully applied to study physics at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with honours in 1955. He went on to gain a Master’s degree and later a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago.

It was post university as a young researcher working at the famous Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, however, that Smith really made his mark.

Inventing the technology

In 1969, George E. Smith and his then head of department, Willard (Bill) Boyle, came up with the original concept for the charge-couple device or CCD. Though originally intended as a computer memory circuit, their CCD went on to form the basis of digital image sensors, and ultimately kick-started a visual revolution.

The basic concept of the CCD is the storing and manipulation of information in the form of electronic signals, or charge. The CCD itself is a device which moves electrical signals from where they originate to an area where they can be converted into digital data, in the form of ‘bits’.

Previously, small magnetised areas called ‘domains’ or ‘bubbles’ could store one ‘bit’ of data, giving the device the original nickname of ‘charge bubble devices’. However, instead of storing the information in static ‘bubbles’ on the device, Smith and Boyle’s CCD design could move information as an electrical charge along the surface of the semiconductor to a new location to be stored. This meant that the device could be used as digital memory in computers; moving the electrical charge, converting it from electricity into a digital code, and storing it as digital information.

Smith remained at Bell Labs until his retirement in 1986 working on a range of technologies; from lasers, to the electronic structure of solids, to electroluminescence.

It’s not all hard work

A keen sailor, Smith bought his first boat soon after joining Bell Labs, and spent his free time exploring the coastline of Barnegat Bay, on New Jersey’s eastern coast, with his wife and three children. Following the death of his wife in 1975, Smith continued to raise his children, then aged 10, 11 and 14, as a single parent.

As well as enjoying regular sailing trips with his friend and mentor, Bill, Smith embarked on a round-the-world sailing tour with his partner, Janet. Their trip lasted 17 years, before finally returning to land in 2003, mooring their floating home to a dock in their new back garden.

Smith and Boyle shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for their work in electronic memory design. Their CCD concept became the basis for the light-sensitive charge coupled device, or CCD, invented by Dr Michael Tompsett.

On 1 February 2017, George Smith was announced as one of four winners of the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, recognised for his contribution to digital imaging sensors.