Nobel Controversy: Eugene Gordon Claims He Gave Smith The Idea for the CCD

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. Read more about the Nobel Prize winners themselves, the Bell Labs engineer who patented the CCD imager, and the illustrious history of Bell Labs.

IEEE Fellow and CCD camera chip inventor Mike Tompsett has already called into question the validity of Smith’s and Boyle’s claims to this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, now his former Bell Labs boss, IEEE Fellow and Edison Medal Recipient Eugene Gordon, is backing Tompsett’s position and striking even deeper at Boyle’s and Smith’s contributions to as the Nobel Prize committee called it “the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit—the CCD.”

“This is an outrage,” says Gordon. Tompsett invented, designed and built the first CCD camera, he says. “Smith had little to do with it. Boyle had nothing to do with it.”

What’s more, in a wide-ranging telephone interview Friday, Gordon told me that he gave Smith the concept behind the CCD, even going so far as to hand him an article by other researchers at Burroughs describing a similar shift register concept for a display device, before “sending him off to work out the numbers.”

The Borroughs paper described a shift register for moving a spot of light based on a three-phase clock. When combined with what Gordon’s group had already learned developing a silicon-diode-based video camera target, there was no great leap of logic to go from that idea to the CCD, he says. “We already knew about storing charge in the space charge gap between the oxide layer and undepleted semiconductor substrate. In that region you can move accumulated or stored charge many centimeters,” he says. All one had to do is set up voltages in a phased clock format to move the charge along “There was nothing to it except the numerical details.”

Smith worked out those details with the man who was Gordon’s boss at the time, Willard Boyle. And the two patented a CCD intended as a kind of bubble memory. Gordon’s name was left off the patent, without his knowledge.

“I had a fit, but there was no point in fighting my boss or destroying the patent for Bell Labs,” says Gordon. “That was just one more invention. I have a hundred patents myself.”

Gordon didn’t talk publicly about the events surrounding the invention for many years, while Boyle and Smith’s standing solidified. During the 1970s he was busy developing the electron beam photolithography mask maker still used in IC fabrication, and in the early 1980s he worked on the semiconductor lasers needed for transoceanic communications. Moreover, he could not speak about the CCD because he was advising Toshiba in their legal battle with Fairchild Semiconductor regarding the technology.

Long retired from Bell Labs, today, Gordon is the CEO of medical device firm Germgard Lighting, in Dover, N. J. It’s an “exciting” time for the business, which makes sterilization equipment to prevent hospital acquired infections, says Gordon.  So last week was “not as upsetting as you might think” for him.

So who should have gotten the Nobel, in Gordon’s opinion?

“It really shouldn’t be a physics award,” he says “Most of the work has been in electrical engineering. There’s no fundamental physics.”

If it had to go to someone for the CCD, it should have gone to Mike Tompsett alone, Gordon suggests.

“The whole thing is an outrage. But such outrages are perpetrated all the time.”

IEEE Spectrum hopes to be speaking with Willard Boyle and George Smith soon. Stay tuned.

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