Originally from Essex in the south-east of England, Michael left home at the end of his school days to begin an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Cambridge. He went on to complete a PhD in engineering at the same college, graduating as Dr Tompsett in 1966.
Shortly after leaving university, he began working at the Electric Valve Company, now called e2v, in Chelmsford. He started out into his role as an inventor, designing and making the un-cooled pyro-electric thermal imaging television camera tube. A huge advancement for its time, Tompsett’s invention provided electronic scanning at room temperature, rather than having to be cooled with liquid nitrogen. His solid-state version is now the basis for thermal imagers used today by search and rescue teams, firefighters and the military.
Inventing the CCD
In 1969 Tompsett, along with his wife Margaret, left England for the Garden State, settling in to New Jersey life and a new job at AT&T Bell Laboratories. It was here that Tompsett heard of fellow engineer George Smith’s charge coupled principle, and immediately saw its potential for imaging. His next innovation put the idea to the test, resulting in a charge coupled device, or CCD, complete with an imaging semiconductor circuit and an analogue-to-digital converter.
This invention uses light sensitive areas called ‘pixels’ to capture particles of light, or photons, and convert them into an electrical signal. The electrical charge produced depends on the strength of the light hitting the sensors. A stronger light produces a much bigger charge. This signal is then converted into a simple binary code, allowing the image to be stored as digital data. Tompsett’s imaging CCD has become ubiquitous around the world, being used in every early digital camera and setting the foundation for the digital cameras and smartphones we use today.
Tompsett went on to head up Bell Laboratories’ CCD group, and with his team developed a series of CCD cameras. The fruits of their labour were shown across America in 1973, with the world’s first colour digital image making the cover of Electronics Magazine. The first digital cover girl was none other than Margaret Tompsett.
After Bell Labs
After taking an early retirement from AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1989, Tompsett joined the US Army as Director of Electron Device Research. He stayed with the forces for six years, before making the leap into self-employment. He remains a founding director of the US software company TheraManager, providing electronic medical records and practice management software for healthcare offices across America.
Tompsett’s achievements have also been recognized elsewhere. His invention of a thermal-imaging pyroelectric camera tube led to a Queen’s Award for its developers in 1987. He was awarded the NJ Inventors Hall of Fame Pioneer Lifetime Award, a National Medal of Technology & Innovation presented by President Obama, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Edison Gold Medal, and the Royal Photographic Society Progress Medal. He has been elected a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. On 1 February 2017, Tompsett was announced as one of four winners of the 2017 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, for his contribution to the creation digital imaging sensors.