Emmy Awarded To Digital Image Pioneer Michael Tompsett

By: Tim Wood

Chatham resident Michael Tompsett with the first digital camera and the Emmy Award he received for his development of the imaging sensor chip. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – A half century ago, while working for Bell Labs, Michael Tompsett invented an image sensor chip that became the world's first digital camera. The first-ever digital photo was a picture of his wife, Margaret, which ended up on the cover of the January 1973 edition of Electronics Magazine.

Last week Tompsett was honored for his achievements, which included work to reduce the size of bulky television cameras, with an Emmy Award for Technology and Engineering from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The irony of being presented the Emmy in a virtual ceremony was not lost on the Great Hills resident.

“It makes use of the technology that we started,” he said in an interview last week.

The Emmy was awarded to Tompsett for his “pioneering development of the CCD image sense,” the integrated circuit chip that makes digital photography possible and “got the whole industry going,” he said. It's the latest in a string of recognitions that include a National Medal of Technology and Innovation given to him by President Barack Obama in 2012, and the Queen's Award, presented by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 2017.

Digital imaging today, whether in cameras or mobile phones, has, to say the least, come a long way; the original chips had only a few pixels; today one chip can hold 48 million pixels, he said.

“Things have changed rather dramatically in my lifetime,” said the British-born Tompsett, who is now retired.

There's a link between the engineer and the Emmy; the name of the award is an alteration of the slang term “immy,” which referred to the big image orthicon camera vacuum tubes used in the large early color television cameras. Tompsett began his career 60 years ago at the factory where the tubes were made. While at the company, he invented uncooled thermal imaging technology, which led to the creation of hand-held cameras that could be used to sense images in the dark using infrared light.

He joined Bell Laboratories in 1969, where he worked on smaller camera tubes. At the time Bell was developing the Picturephone and needed to shrink the camera tube to fit in a tabletop box. While at Bell Labs, he saw the application of the charge-coupled device integrated circuit chip, or CCD, in imaging, and created the first CCD imager and camera. Although he developed CCDs and CCD imagers, the concept had originated with two other Bell engineers, Willard Boyle and George Smith, but they hadn't seen the application to imaging, Tompsett wrote in a short memoir for the University of Cambridge. Although Tompsett obtained the first patent for a CCD imager, Boyle and Smith were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2009 for the invention.

The Picturephone never went anywhere, although the concept is alive and well today in applications such as Zoom and Facetime. Tompsett moved on and developed modem technology, coming up with an analog-to-digital signal converter chip that was introduced in 1989. In its first year it generated $25 million in revenue and became integral to digital devices like cameras, scanners and phones.
After retiring from Bell Labs, Tompsett worked in software development and became director of electron device research for the U.S. Army. He later started a company that developed electronic medical record and management software.

Tompsett's invention of CCD imaging launched the digital imaging industry and was used in the first commercially available digital cameras. Today's cameras use a different chip, the complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor or CMOS; the technology didn't exist to make those chips when he was doing his work, Tompsett said. The CCD chip is still used in some applications.

Other awards Tompsett has received in recognition of his work include the Edison Gold Medal award from the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the Pioneer Lifetime Award from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, the Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in Great Britain, and shared a $1.3 million prize for the Queen's Award.

The integration of video into mobile phones makes the work he did “very visible,” Tompsett said. “We all know what video is because it's on all our phones,” he said. But there continues to be a lot of interesting work being done in the area, he added. “There's an awful lot of science and technology today that does not get the same recognition,” he said. “But it makes use of the technology that we started.”