The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honoured Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for “scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies. They have created many practical innovations for everyday life and provided new tools for scientific exploration.”
In 1966, Kao of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, Harlow, UK, and Chinese University of Hong Kong, made a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fibre optics. He calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres, determining it would be possible to transmit light signals over 100 kilometres via a fibre of purest glass, compared to only 20 metres for the fibres available in the 1960s.
Kao’s enthusiasm, the Academy noted, “inspired other researchers to share his vision of the future potential of fibre optics. The first ultrapure fibre was successfully fabricated just four years later, in 1970.”
Optical fibres today enable global broadband communication such as the internet, allowing text, music, images and video to be transferred around the globe in a split second.
A large share of that internet traffic is made up of digital images, which constitute the second part of the award. In 1969, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith of Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a CCD (charge-coupled device). The CCD technology makes use of the photoelectric effect (which was theorised by Albert Einstein and for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1921). The effect transforms light into electric signals.
The challenge when designing an image sensor was to gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, pixels, in a short time.
The CCD is the digital camera’s electronic eye. It revolutionised photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film. CCD technology is also used in many medical applications, both for diagnostics and for microsurgery.
As joint winners, Kao will receive one half of the SEK 10 million prize, while Boyle and Smith will share the other half.