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Scientist Willard Boyle Dies


Willard Boyle died on Saturday at the age of 86. Boyle was a Nobel laureate physicist. The invention that earned the prize for him and his colleague George Smith is in everything from bar code scanners to medical endoscopes to the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the CCD, the charge-coupled device. It is the light-sensitive microchip at the heart of digital photography.

Joining us from Ruzena Bajcsy, who teaches electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California Berkeley. Welcome to the program. And how important was the development of the CCD?

Mr. RUZENA BAJCSY (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor): Well, it turned out to be extremely important because today, it's a billion-dollar industry and any video camera has a CCD chip.

It also was important because it facilitated the conversion from analog cameras to digital cameras. So on that level, you know, you cannot overestimate the importance.

SIEGEL: As you say, billions of dollars of commerce are built around this invention. I gather Dr. Boyle did not die a billionaire.

Ms. BAJCSY: No, no. You see, they both worked for AT&T, Bell Labs. They patented it, but I believe they got a dollar for it from Bell Labs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: How does it do what it does, the CCD?

Ms. BAJCSY: It's a silicon substrate, which has three layers. One layer is light sensitive, that converts light into electrons. The second layer is more like a capacitor. It charges and discharges. And the third layer has electrodes.

SIEGEL: This sandwich of materials, this layer cake, whatever it is...

Ms. BAJCSY: Yes, it's a layer cake, yes.

SIEGEL: It manages to take a light and retain it and be able to reproduce the pattern of light as it reached the wafer.

Ms. BAJCSY: Well, it stores it, actually, and then you have to have an extra electronics to read it out.

SIEGEL: You nominated the late Willard Boyle and also his colleague George Smith for a national academy of - is it of engineers, or...

Ms. BAJCSY: Draper Prize, yes.

SIEGEL: The Draper Prize. Why? Why did you do that?

Ms. BAJCSY: Well, I deeply believe that that invention needed recognition, which until then it didn't get.

SIEGEL: Why do you think it hadn't received that recognition?

Ms. BAJCSY: Every invention has to pass a certain test of time. That's number one. Number two, we had to document the real impact. And I believe that one of the biggest impression that the technology made on is in medicine, the laparoscopic surgery, that you can miniaturize this and with a small incision, the doctors can go inside and look at what's happening in your belly.

And so, from the public point of view, the health application turned out to be perhaps most important.

SIEGEL: Professor Bajcsy, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BAJCSY: Sure. You are very welcome.

SIEGEL: Professor Ruzena Bajcsy of the University of California Berkeley. She teaches electrical engineering and computer sciences. We were talking about Willard Boyle, who together with George Smith invented the CCD, which enabled digital photography. Dr. Boyle died Saturday at the age of 86. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.