The Vault

Innovators Talking to Innovators - Dr. George Smith
Video / Jun 2014 / CCD

Interviewer: I'm Diana Pani. I'm an engineer that works for Interdigital and tonight I'm with Dr. George Smith who is a Nobel Prize winner in physics for his work in engineering and the invention of the coupled charge devices. George Smith: Charged-coupled device. Interviewer: The charge-coupled device. Thank you for coming tonight. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here with you. George Smith: Oh, thank you. Interviewer: So, Dr. Smith, you developed the charge-coupled device technology while working on the semiconductor bubble memory. George Smith: The charge-coupled device is what we originally called the charge bubble device, but that only lasted about one week, when we also realized that its being an imaging device was much more important than being ethereal memory. It just so happened that I had the development of an imaging tube for the Picturephone at the time, so we were very much interested in a better imaging device than one of these old vacuum tubes. Interviewer: So, when you were doing this work with your partner, Willard Boyle, when did you realize the potential application of this invention? George Smith: Oh, about three microseconds after. Interviewer: So, it was right away. George Smith: Oh, yes. Interviewer: You felt it. You knew it. George Smith: Oh, yes. Interviewer: And when you came up with the idea, did you ever imagine the impact that it would have on society and the wide range of uses it would have, from medical imaging to social uses from digital cameras and so on? George Smith: Well, I do have to admit, it came out to be more than we expected, even though we did think that it was going to be a fairly big splash in the device world. But the way it took over and put Kodak out of business amazed us. Interviewer: It's an incredible achievement. I heard it was surprisingly fast for you to get from the first inkling of the CCD to the invention itself. What was this process like? George Smith: I'm going to attack that in my talk this evening, but if you want the details of the thought process, I haven't got a clue. Interviewer: That's how the best inventions come. George Smith: Things just happen, yeah. Well, you're an inventor yourself. Interviewer: Yes. George Smith: You know of that. Interviewer: They just come while brainstorming. George Smith: Yeah. Interviewer: For you, was it important to personally find and develop a commercial application to this invention, or was the invention itself rewarding enough and you were ready to move on to the next invention and you were okay with that? George Smith: Well, this was done when I worked for AT&T. Interviewer: Yes. George Smith: AT&T was not allowed to sell any products on the commercial market. They could only manufacture devices or anything that would be used in the Bell system. So, since we were working on the Picturephone, we thought ah ha. Interviewer: We can use it. George Smith: It's going to be great for Picturephones. Then they killed the Picturephone project. And there was no more work on CCD's because there was no application for it in the Bell system. Interviewer: So, do I understand correct? You actually started working on a commercial product for the imaging? George Smith: For the imaging. Interviewer: For the image - Picturephone? George Smith: For the Picturephone. Interviewer: Oh, wow. George Smith: We actually made a device and had it in trial production when they killed the project. Interviewer: Ah, that's a pity. So, the late 50's and the early 70's was an incredible period when Bell Labs, Shockley, Intel were developing a complete, entire new industry. We saw the first laser. We saw integrated circuits. We saw CCD's. We - and then the same time, there was the on-going Cold War, the Space program. What was it like for you to work during that time? George Smith: Oh, very exciting. This was in the beginning where the silicon integrated circuit business was just starting, okay? So, that it was a wide open field of things to do and it was easy picking. Interviewer: A lot of opportunities. George Smith: But nowadays, it's become more or less tweaking things, you know. Getting a little, little bit smaller and - Interviewer: Enhancing and optimizing. George Smith: Not very exciting any more. Interviewer: So, speaking about innovation, how would you define innovation? George Smith: You have to understand the motivation. Usually, there's some problem that you have to address or you get an idea. Gee, it would be nice to have something like this, okay? Then you go about thinking well, what can I think of that will do that or fix this, whatever? Sooner or later, it pops up. And the thought process that goes along with that? I haven't a clue what it is. It just happens, okay? Interviewer: When you find out, please let us know. George Smith: I'll write a book. Interviewer: Excellent. So, one of the challenges of innovation is that when you are very far ahead of the markets, then often times there is no market for your product. Was this an issue for you, that your innovation might not find its way into a product for a very long time? George Smith: AT&T, Bell Labs that I was working for, could only work on things that were for the Bell system at the time. The government broke up AT&T and that's no longer the case. So, it's a different story. But then, like I explained before, they killed the Picturephone. There was no reason whatsoever and why waste money trying to develop something that you can't use anyway. Interviewer: But you were confident that it was going to make it into a product sooner or later? George Smith: By that time, the whole world was confident that it would do something. Interviewer: So, and what do you think was essential in the environment and the people you were working for - with - that enabled and encouraged innovation? George Smith: I start out in the research area in Bell Labs. Published a lot of [00:07:39 unintelligible] papers and all that. And then, I got an offer, since as a researcher, I used to talk to people in the development areas and I even had a couple of patents while in the research area, which was unheard of. Not unheard of, but rare. So, I was given the job of starting a new department in the what we called exploratory development area that was called the device concepts department. And I was given just a couple of oddball people - oddball in that they were smart but they wouldn't follow the rules and enough money to hire a whole bunch of new people. So, I started off in that device concepts department trying to do that. Interviewer: Among your many awards, you've won the big one, the Nobel Prize. How did you learn about it and what was your first reaction when you found out about winning the Nobel Prize? George Smith: When you get a call at 5:00 in the morning and you roll over and say eh, I'm not going to worry about that. It calls again and I got up to answer it, but it was too late. But there was a message left. This is Sweden calling. We will call you back in a short while. And I thought this is the Nobel Prize time of the year. Ah ha! Interviewer: That's where it clicked? George Smith: It clicked. Interviewer: Were you expecting such a call? George Smith: Yeah. And then, five minutes later or something, a fellow who's also called Smith calls me up and announced that I had won the Nobel Prize. And I immediately went in and woke up Janet. Interviewer: Finally Dr. Smith, what made you want to come and speak to Interdigital team tonight? George Smith: Well, an old friend of mine, Gil Amelio, is on your Board of Directors and I hired him when he first got his PhD from Georgia Tech. So, I know him from way back. And he was also on the first experimental paper on the CCD and we were good friends. So, unfortunately he's not going to be here tonight because I wanted to see him again. But that was my major attraction. Interviewer: Well, it's an honor to have you here tonight and thank you again for taking the time to take this interview. Thank you. George Smith: My pleasure.