What might be called the Moore’s Law process always starts that way, with a basic invention that is subject to dramatic improvement through miniaturization.
Two such inventions were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics today, the fiber optic cable and the Charged Coupler Device (CCD).
- Charles Kao worked out the basic mathematics for fiber cables four years before materials science had the right material available.
- Willard Boyle and George Smith created the CCD, a light-sensitive chip at the heart of the digital camera, while at Bell Labs.
Both inventions, it turned out, were subject to the exponential improvements we think of as Moore’s Law.
Kao’s fibers were improved by diodes that could distinguish different colors within the light stream, multiplying a fiber’s capacity many times. Boyle and Smith’s CCDs were subject to the economics of semiconductors.
The BBC calls these men Masters of Light. It’s an elegant term. In both cases these inventions subjected light to the patterns and economics of inventions like semiconductors, bringing light into the mainstream of electronics.
It’s the operation of semiconductor economics on the inventions of Kao, Boyle and Smith that turned their creations into revolutions. It’s partly because of such men as these that Moore’s Law, and its impact on society, remain underestimated.
Once any basic discovery becomes subject to the economics of semiconductors its exponential improvements have a transforming effect.
Much the same thing happened with Digital Signal Processors (DSPs), a technology first used in toys just 30 years ago but now found in all electronics and communications systems. DSPs were such a rich vein of money that Texas Instruments, which pioneered the technology, abandoned processor chips to Intel in order to mine it.
What other basic inventions like these might transform our future, when subject to the effects of Moore’s Law?