Stepping outside our office in central London, it’s impossible to miss the impact of this year’s QEPrize-winning innovation. Tourists wear expensive SLR cameras slung casually about their necks; school children gather on Westminster Bridge, all vying for a selfie in front of Big Ben; and every so often the insect-like chatter of shutters explodes from a flurry of press photographers camped outside No.10 Downing Street.

Quizzed about digital imaging, most of us will instantly think of our mobile phones. High-resolution cameras are now common-place in the pocket-sized devices we carry every day. They give us quality face time with friends a world away and can upload a hipster shot of your ‘latte art’ before it’s even begun to cool.

A little further back, maybe you recall your first ever digital camera; a boxy silver thing with a small, smudgy LCD screen on the back. What we’re unlikely to call to mind, however, is a metal shoebox, stuffed with wires and a lens that protrudes from the front.

Its inventor, Dr Michael F. Tompsett, will next month receive engineering’s top accolade for his role in changing the way we capture our world. He is shown in the picture above with his wife and the first camera using the silicon imaging chip, which he invented. This was used to take the photo of his wife in 1972, which was reproduced on the cover of Electronics Magazine. Fifteen years later he invented an integrated video analogue-to-digital converter chip, which really enabled cameras to become truly digital and propelled the digital video revolution.

“There is an immense feeling of satisfaction in being recognized for my role in inventing, making and demonstrating the first solid-state cameras,” he said. “I feel proud to have made original contributions to both the imaging and the digital innovations recognised in this award.”

Funding the future of engineering

Alongside receiving a unique, 3D printed trophy at Buckingham Palace, Tompsett and his colleagues win a £1million purse, the world’s largest engineering prize fund.

Tompsett will split his share between two secondary schools here in the UK; the ones that launched both him and his wife Margaret, herself a doctor of medicine, onto their future career paths. “The understanding is that the funding will be used to encourage students, especially girls, into STEMM studies and activities at school and university,” he said. “The second ‘M’ is included for medicine.”

On one of their regular visits back to the UK, Tompsett visited his alma mater and was pleasantly surprised by the changes. “In the process of setting up these donations, I have become aware that society has changed more than I had realized,” he said. “When I went to Cambridge 50 years ago, there were only two female students in the engineering class that year. Today, my former high school is co-ed, and has an engineer on staff as STEM co-ordinator.”

In fact, the school’s drive to engage their young women with engineering has already got off to a glittering start. For the past two years, Brentwood school has competed in the BBC’s Robot Wars reboot, the only secondary school team to take part. This summer, their all-female team packed their bags and headed to China to compete in a brand new robo-combat show, King of the Bots, hosted by martial artist and film star, Jet Li.

Students look for opportunities to engineer change

While the prize purse may sound appealing, Tompsett stresses that it is not fame or fortune that drives innovation. “Opportunity is what motivates many engineers and not money,” he said. “I left England with a specific technical goal in mind and America held more opportunities to realise it. This goal was to develop solid-state imagers, and I did that beyond mine or anybody else’s imagination.”

Echoing the 2015 Create the Future report, he suggested instead that young engineers, especially 16-17 year olds, thrive on the chance to solve real-world problems that can make a real-world different to people’s lives. “All engineering projects impact some segment or other of society. This may be either a few people or the population of the world,” he added.

When it comes to the challenges he would like to see the next generation of engineers tackling, he’s torn. “I’d like to see genetic engineering being used to make vaccines and cure genetic diseases. I also think innovations such as self-driving cars and revolutionary energy storage will change our world.”

Equally unsure were his predictions as to the future winners of the QEPrize. “It’s taken 50 years for digital imaging technology to be developed and have the impact it has had on society,” he said. “It’s likely that at least the basic concepts of future QEPrize winning innovations already exist.”

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