Mon, 11/30/2009 - 7:10pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

This year's Nobel Prize is unusual in several ways.

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for a couple of inventions that are key to cable television - and television in general. These inventions were fiber-optic cable and charge-Walter S. Cicioracoupled device (CCD) image devices.

Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and inventor, became hugely successful because of his invention of high-explosive dynamite. While there are many peaceful uses for this invention, dynamite also has military applications. This troubled Nobel. He hoped to compensate for the negative aspects of his invention by leaving 94 percent of his estate to motivate human progress.

Nobel died on Dec. 10, 1896. He wished his estate to be invested conservatively and the annual proceeds divided into five equal parts, to be awarded in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for work for fraternity among nations. This latter category is the Peace Prize. The first prizes were awarded in 1901.

The category of most interest to us is the physics prize. Nobel's will states that this prize is to go to someone who "during the preceding year … shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics."

Each of the five prizes consists of a gold medal, a diploma and (currently) $1.4 million. Up to three people can be named in any one year - for up to two contributions. If for one contribution, the money is evenly split; if for two contributions, one awardee gets half and the other two split the remainder. If more than three individuals are involved in the contribution, some get left out. Nominations are not accepted posthumously, and self-nominations are disqualified.

Because some awards were later found to be in error, the requirement of "during the preceding year" has been eliminated so that the contribution can stand the test of time.

About 3,000 people are invited to submit nominations by Jan. 31 (Feb. 3 for the Peace Prize). A committee reduces the number to about 200 preliminary candidates. Their names are submitted to selected experts who further reduce the number to 15. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences then makes the final selection.

The list of nominees is to be kept secret for 50 years. Awards are announced in October and presented on the anniversary of Nobel's death, Dec. 10, in Stockholm, Sweden (the Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway).

The physics prize has been biased toward discoveries over inventions. Inventions were recognized only 23 percent of the time. Engineering achievements tend to get slighted since they are usually inventions. I wonder how old Alfred would feel about that! (It's kind of bothered me in the past, and that's why I am particularly pleased this year.)

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born (in 1933) British-American determined the cause of losses in fiber optics in 1966. This led to a breakthrough, which made fiber optics practical. He is now retired and lives in Hong Kong. He gets half of the prize money. We in cable are grateful for his contribution, and the contributions of the many others who advanced this important technology. For more on Kao's achievement, click here.

The other half of the money is split by two co-workers: Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the U.S. (in 1974, the two worked together at Bell Labs). They are credited with inventing CCD technology for image sensors. Their work was motivated by the need for compact image sensors for AT&T's Picturephone. These image sensors have revolutionized television cameras, and also still cameras. Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term "creative destruction" to describe the process where the progress of one technology destroys the market for an older technology. Digital cameras have certainly done that to the photographic film industry. Inexpensive digital cameras are now in cell phones, in computers, and nearly everywhere. This has led some to be concerned about privacy. This is not the only controversy in this tale.

The story gets more interesting. Other former Bell Labs scientists believe there is some unfairness here. Eugene Gordon claims that Boyle and Smith had not worked on a CCD imager, but rather on the transport mechanism of the CCD leading to a recirculating memory. Gordon claims he gave Smith the idea and should have been included in the patent issued to Boyle and Smith. Had he protested, the patent would have been declared invalid because a patent must list all of the inventors. Gordon claims to have kept quiet so as to avoid invalidating the patent for his employer.

But he is bitter about it. As another part of the story, Boyle was Gordon's boss at the time. Have you ever had a boss take credit for something you've done? In most cases, this injustice doesn't involve a Nobel Prize!

Furthermore, Gordon says that Mike Tompsett, another Bell Labs scientist, is the real inventor of the CCD camera chip.

I have no way of knowing where the truth lies. It is unfortunate that there is this controversy. It will be interesting to see what happens Dec. 10.

The Nobel Prize has a way of attracting controversy!



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