Decades of research into making digital imaging possible was rewarded today with the award of the £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to scientists from the UK, the US and Japan.
The QEPrize is awarded to engineering advances that have changed humanity, a qualification Lord Browne of Madingley, Chairman of the Prize Committee, has no problem defending.
“This technology has changed the way we look at the world and at the universe,” he said. “It has changed medical imaging and of course it has changed our lives by putting digital photography in the hands of people across the planet.
“Fifty cameras are being built every second of every day, and these scientists made it possible.”
Every second, around 100 cameras are made using CMOS technology, allowing us to share in excess of 3 billion images a day. From uploading photographs and videos to social media, to enabling autonomous vehicles or biometric fingerprint recognition on smartphones and tablets, the global use of digital imaging has grown at a phenomenal rate.
The development of modern digital photography began in the 1970s with the invention of the CCD (charged coupled device) by American scientists George Smith and Willard Boyle (now deceased). Smith is one of today’s winners, because his CCD – originally designed for computer memory – was seized on by British scientist Michael Tompsett who understood its application for turning chips into cameras.
CCD technology was enhanced in the 1980s by the Japanese scientist Nobukazu Teranishi, who developed the Pinned Photodiode, which shrank pixels and greatly improved the quality for images produced. This led to the video camera revolution of the 80s.
The genesis of modern digital photography came in 1992 with the invention of the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) by Eric Fossum when he was working at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He and his colleagues found that existing CCD sensors could be damaged by high energy cosmic particles, developed the CMOS as a more versatile, lighter and low-energy replacement.
The four men share in the £1m QEPrize, which was developed by the Queen Elizabeth Prize Foundation and operated by the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is designed to honour world-changing achievements and inspire young people to pursue careers in engineering.