Willard S. Boyle, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, dies at 86

Willard S. Boyle, 86, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who co-invented a revolutionary imaging device that propelled traditional film photography into the digital frontier, died May 7 at a hospital in Wallace, Nova Scotia.

Dr. Boyle spent his career at Bell Labs in New Jersey. His death was confirmed by his colleague and Nobel co-recipient, George E. Smith. No cause of death was reported.

Dr. Boyle and Smith received the 2009 Nobel in physics 40 years after they invented the charge-coupled device, or CCD.

It is essentially the electronic eye in digital cameras — a photosensitive microchip that transforms light rays into digital images. The digital image sensor is 1,000 times more sensitive than photographic film and practically made chemical film obsolete.

Today, CCDs can be found in supermarket bar-code scanners, fax machines, digital cameras, camcorders, endoscopes used for laparoscopic surgeries and colonoscopies, the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Mars rover.

Dr. Boyle and Smith shared the Nobel with Charles K. Kao, who made groundbreaking discoveries in the transmission of light in fiber-optic lines.

Highly advanced glass fiber-optics that Kao helped develop are used to connect the world through the Internet. A significant portion of Web traffic is devoted to sharing pictures taken on digital cameras, which use the CCD invented by Dr. Boyle and Smith.

“A young person in the middle of a civil demonstration in Syria can instantly show the rest of the world from his cellphone camera, and it’s because of what Dr. Boyle did with his colleague George Smith at Bell Labs,” H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics, said in an interview. “This little chip makes those pictures possible.”

Willard Sterling Boyle was born Aug. 19, 1924, in Amherst, Nova Scotia. He grew up in Chaudiere, a small logging community in Quebec. His father, the local physician, got around town in a dog sled.

Dr. Boyle was home-schooled by his mother until high school. In World War II, Dr. Boyle served in the Royal Canadian Navy and trained to fly Spitfire fighter planes.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Montreal’s McGill University in 1947 and a master’s degree a year later. He earned his doctorate in physics from McGill in 1950.

He joined Bell Labs in 1953. For a time, he worked for a subsidiary in Washington and helped NASA scientists pick out the ideal lunar landing spot for the Apollo astronauts.

One fall afternoon in 1969, Dr. Boyle invited Smith, his Bell colleague, to join him in his office after lunch for a skull session. The pair often collaborated and exchanged ideas and had come together that day to brainstorm on a new data storage device.

They chalked up some notes on the blackboard in Dr. Boyle’s office and, within an hour, came up with the initial design of the chip.

Once the device had been fabricated, the physicists realized their invention had potential beyond memory storage as an image sensor.

“After making the first couple of imaging devices, we knew for certain that chemistry photography was dead,” Smith told The Washington Post in 2006.

Composed of tiny photocells, the CCD is a silicon chip that captures light and uses electric signals to create a digital version of an image. (The photoelectric effect was theorized by Albert Einstein and won him the 1921 Nobel Prize.)

In addition to his research with Smith, Dr. Boyle worked on patents for lasers. They included the first continuously operating red-light laser, which is used for tattoo removal, and another laser that would later be employed in DVD and CD players.

He retired in 1979 as executive director of research in Bell’s communication science division.

Dr. Boyle was predeceased by a son. Survivors include his wife, Betty, whom he married in 1946; three children; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

In an interview, Smith said he remained close friends with Dr. Boyle after retirement. Beyond their Nobel, they shared a love of the sea and often sailed together on Long Island Sound.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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