Three IEEE Life Fellows are sharing the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics. Charles K. Kao was recognized for breakthroughs in the transmission of light in fiber-optic cables. George E. Smith and Willard S. Boyle were honored for inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit that led to digital photography. The recipients each received a medal and the Nobel Prize diploma, and they shared a prize worth slightly more than US $1.4 million.
Kao, who receives half of the monetary prize, was recognized for “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.” In 1966 he discovered how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers. The development helped build the framework for modern broadband communication networks that carry high‐speed Internet data and phone calls around the world.
At the time of his discovery Kao was a researcher for Standard Telephone and Cable in Harlow, England, since acquired by Nortel Networks of Toronto. While at STC, Kao demonstrated that the loss of signal in fiber-optic cables was a result of impurities in the glass rather than a fundamental flaw in the technology. Because of his research, manufacturers were able to modify how they fabricated the optical cable.
Kao has been the chairman and chief executive officer since 2000 of ITX Services, a company in Hong Kong dedicated to identifying research with the potential for commercial applications.
Smith and Boyle, who share the other half of the prize, were cited for “the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit: the CCD sensor.” The two worked together as researchers on semiconductor bubble memory at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., where in 1969 they invented the charge-coupled device. The CCD is a semiconductor that transfers charge along its surface in response to the intensity of light that strikes it. The CCD, the first digital imaging device, revolutionized photography by allowing light to be captured electronically in the form of pixels, rather than on film.
Boyle, now retired, began his career at Bell Labs in 1953. Smith, also retired, joined Bell Labs in 1959, where he researched lasers and semiconductor devices.