Chatham Man Awarded Queen Elizabeth Prize For Contribution To Digital Imaging

By: Tim Wood

Dr. Michael Tompsett invented the world's first digital camera, shown at left, and took the first color digital photo of his wife, Dr. Margaret Tompsett, which was published on cover of Electronics Magazine in 1973. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Drs. Michael and Margaret Tompsett were getting ready for a vacation in Cuba when they received a call from Lord Browne of Madingley. Michael Tompsett, he informed them, was to share the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his work in digital imaging.

“We basically took a day of shock, then unpacked our suitcase for Cuba and packed for London – unpacked swimsuits and packed rain coats,” Michael Tompsett said.

The award, announced Feb. 1, recognized the contribution Tompsett and three other engineers made to digital imaging, which paved the way for everything from ubiquitous cell phone cameras to medical scanners. Every second, 100 cameras are made using the technology, resulting in some three billion images each and every day, according to the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, which sponsored the award.

Tompsett, whose home overlooks Lovers Lake, was working at AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1970s when he came up with the idea of using the charged-couple device, or CCD, to create digital images. He made the first digital camera and took the first color digital image – a photo of his wife, which was published on the cover of Electronics Magazine.

“They called her the first digital cover girl,” he said of recent new reports about the award.

In the second floor study in his home, Tompsett opens up the back of that first camera, which was about the size of a shoe box, and points to its various components.

“Today everything in here fits on one chip,” he said, highlighting how the technology has changed, although the concepts have basically remained the same. Two of the other engineers honored with the award, Professor Nobukazu Teranishi and Professor Eric R. Fossum, invented ways to make those initial imaging sensors smaller, to the point today when they can fit inside a pill that can be swallowed.

Also honored was Dr. George Smith, co-inventor of the CCD. The chip, first created at the Bell Lab in 1969, was originally intended to enhance computer memory. Tompsett's innovation was to apply the CCD to imaging. Light-sensitive pixels produce an electronic signal which the sensor reads and measures; an analogue-to-digital converter, which Tompsett also invented, then turns the pixel measurements into binary information that can be stored as digital data.

“Slowly a lot of things came together,” he said. A year after putting together the first digital camera, a second prototype was made that was less than half the size. They knew they were on to something, but, said Tompsett, he and his team of engineers “had no idea if it could ever be important or even if it was realistic.”

That initial image was blurry and pixelated – the first CCD chips only contained eight pixels – and the image of Margaret Tompsett was made with 10,000 pixels, minuscule by today's standards, when a cell phone camera's resolution can be 12 megapixels, or 12 million pixels. Images grew clearer and sharper as the number of pixels were increased, which upped the amount of light that the sensor could gather. The technology at the time was “pretty basic,” he said. “We cut the templates by hand.”

Tompsett had come to Bell Labs from his native England, where he had invented a thermal imaging television camera tube while working for the Electric Valve Company. Unlike previous scanners, his did not require cooling. It became the basis of thermal image scanners used today by the military and rescue services as a visual aid in low-light environments, such as smokey fires, as well as a medical diagnostic and screening tool. That innovation was previously recognized with a Queen's Award in 1987.

At Bell Labs Tompsett's team was working on ways to reduce the size of the enormous television cameras used at the time, which relied on tubes, by applying semiconductor or solid state technology. He also worked on the Bell picture phone, which was abandoned because it was too expensive.

Tompsett continued to work on CCD images, as well as computer modems, developing a codex to convert between analogue and digital signals, which reduce the cost of communicating over telephone lines dramatically, he said.

After taking early retirement from Bell Labs, Tompsett ran the U.S. Army's Electron Device Research program for six years, again working on imaging devices. He left the post to start his own medical software company after noticing that the products his wife, a medical doctor, was using were “crummy.”

“We decided we could do better, and in fact we did,” he said. After a dozen years, he sold the company and moved to Chatham, where his family had been vacationing since 1973. The couple bought their home here in 2008 and became year-round residents in 2012.

Tompsett's contribution to the technology that is indispensable today was recognized in 2012, when he was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama; a photo of the engineer with the president is prominently displayed in his study, alongside other honors, including his membership in the National Academy of Engineers and the Edison Gold Medal awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He is also a member of the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame. The honors are not over; he will officially receive the Queen Elizabeth Prize from the queen herself in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace at an as-yet-unannounced date.

The prize, given biannually, is designed to raise the profile of engineering and “inspire young people to take up the engineering challenges of the future,” according to a statement from the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation. In his acceptance speech, Tompsett acknowledged the importance of encouraging students to study STEM subjects and “not be intimidated or dissuaded from becoming engineers.”

“Engineering is a fun, creative, exciting, fulfilling and rewarding activity in itself for both sexes, as well as the crucial role which it plays for society, and that is the message to be taken away today and publicized,” he said.

Where will digital imaging go from here? It may have reached the limit as far as miniaturization, Tompsett said. “We can almost detect a single photon in today's cameras,” he noted. He does see improvements in virtual technology, including three-dimensional imaging.

“Movies and so on will be come totally immersive at that point,” he said.