Nobel Controversy: A Portrait of Bell Labs in the Mid-1960s

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. Former Bell Labs engineer Eugene Gordon claims he gave George Smith the idea for the CCD. Read more about the Nobel Prize winners themselves, the Bell Labs engineer who patented the CCD imager, and the illustrious history of Bell Labs.

Gordon gave me some background on what was happening at Bell Labs at the time, that puts the invention in context:

In the mid-1960s, AT&T wanted to move from providing what’s called plain old telephone service (POTS) to offering businesses network services. The Federal Communications Commission, Gordon recalls, turned them down. AT&T’s plan B was to come up with an offering that would give them a back door into network services. They’d make a video telephone system; claim that it was merely an extended telephone service, which would be allowed by FCC, and sneak in broadband network services, because the Picture phone required broadband lines. The new service was called PANS (Picturephone and network services). Julius Molnar was the architect and he was brilliant.

The camera tubes of the day worked fine in television studios, but the uncontrolled lighting in an office environment easily blinded them. (The technology’s amorphous antimony trisulfide imaging targets were the problem.) Gordon says that he was given the responsibility to develop a camera tube that would not have the bright light burn-in problem of conventional vidicons. In early 1967 he had an idea for a silicon diode array picture camera tube that should do the trick.

Nobel nominee Willard Boyle, who was not his boss at the time, “crapped all over the idea and refused to help even though he had the lab and people who could build it,” he says. But Gordon, working through another part of Bell Labs, persevered.  He and his team had a product that went into manufacture in 1969. (One of the tubes was used to record the Moon landing that year, because it was impervious to the bright sunlight that had ruined other Apollo camera tubes.)

Gordon says he gave Smith the shift register idea following a gathering of the camera tube team Gordon had called to congratulate everyone on moving the camera tube on to manufacturing at Western Electric. “If Picturephone had been a success,” says Gordon. “The camera tube would have been replaced by Tompsett’s CCD camera.”

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