There’s at least one in every smartphone. They’re in webcams, drones, CCTV cameras and movie cameras as well. Since the turn of the 21st century, if not before, the solid state ‘active pixel’ image sensor has become one of the world’s most ubiquitous technologies, an integral part of a global industry worth billions.
And it started life on the Grove Trading Estate in Dorchester, the brainchild of scientist-engineer-mathematician Peter Noble whose MBE awarded in the New Year honours for services to photography and charity arguably acknowledges only part of the story.
For the work done by Peter and his team more than fifty years ago was on the verge of being lost to history when, out of the blue, four years ago he received an email from an American professor who asked if the recipient was the Peter Noble who worked on the active pixel image sensor and if so was he still alive.
‘It was a complete shock,’ says Peter between sips of coffee in a busy Dorchester café. ‘I replied ‘Yes’ and let him work out the rest for himself. It transpired he works in the field and we struck up a conversation.’
From those exchanges Peter has gradually received a degree of belated recognition as a pioneer of the digital image sensor that millions of smartphone users now take for granted every day. Even so, whereas parallel work by American scientists at the Fairchild Corporation is held by the Smithsonian Institution, Peter’s archive is stored at home in Poundbury.
‘Thank God I had the presence of mind to keep an image that shows the first image being made using our device. I also have hand drawings of the layout. In those days of course each image sensing area was about 0.2 of an inch square, whereas today you could fit many thousands into the same space.’
Having left school at 15, Peter spent his early years in research at AEI Aldermaston working on optical sensing devices. In 1966, at the age of 25, he was recruited by Plessey to lead a team in developing optical sensors that could identify numbers and letters.
‘They had an automated system that was held up by its inability to read cheques. It was our job to invent something that would read the characters. The solution seemed obvious to me, it just hadn’t been done before.’
The details of how the team solved the problem are best unpacked elsewhere, but having met the challenge Peter was disappointed by the company’s reluctance to push the technology forward. His answer was to jump ship and do it himself, taking six of the team with him. They ended up in Dorchester after one of their wives flatly refused to move to Birmingham where Peter had intended to found his company, Integrated Photomatrix Ltd.
‘I challenged them to come up with an alternative location and they did. The locals had no idea what we were up to there and it fascinates me to this day that relatively few people realise the smartphone camera nearly everyone carries with them started out right here in Dorchester.’
Soon after launching his own business Peter was courted by an American firm with an offer that would have seen him earning almost twenty times what he made at home, but he stayed put, pressed on and in 1974 IPL won a Queen’s Award for Industry.
‘My wife Barbara and I liked it here, we had a young baby and the work went well. I approached government and got funding and we developed linear sensor systems for a range of applications – for instance we made a device that measured the thickness of molten steel so that it could be adjusted and wouldn’t waste steel.’
As he quietly went about refining technology that has changed the world, working in science and electronics until about five years ago, Peter also played an active role in the life of Dorchester. He has belonged to Round Table and Rotary for more than 35 years, serving both at national council level, been a school governor and given many talks about his work.
He also had a keen interest in extreme sports driven by his sons Mark and Chris who started riding BMX bikes in the early 1980s. As Mark was crowned World BMX Flatland Champion in 1988 Peter founded Team Extreme, the UK’s only professional extreme sports show and team. Mark went on to launch and edit a series of BMX magazines while Peter, as a strictly part-time pursuit, continued to expand the team internationally before selling his interests three years ago.
Today, Peter is chairman of Poundbury Community Trust and Poundbury (MANCO2) Ltd, one of the town’s three management companies that are in the process of merging into a single entity. He still undertakes consultancy work advising on how technology might impact on the future and maintains a particular interest in the possibility of using stem cells to connect an image sensor directly to the brain – effectively giving eyesight to the blind.
‘The trouble is for every benefit in science there is a cost and the idea of computer technology plugged directly into the brain raises all sorts of problems with hacking and potential disruption from outside.’
Many view the genesis of the image sensor as similarly significant to the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners Lee and in 2015 Peter was invited by the International Image Sensor Society to give a keynote speech and receive a Pioneering Achievement Award at its global convention.
‘There were representatives from Google, Samsung and all the major companies, people wanted to meet me, I was approached for selfies – it felt very odd and still does if I’m honest. Before the presentation I spent two or three days in session listening to speakers and it struck me that the work we did was so long ago that it has been almost forgotten.
‘There’s no doubt someone would have come up with the first image sensor, it just happened to be me.’
It’s easy to cast Peter as an unsung hero of modern science who has lived beneath the radar of public acclaim long enough for it to make little difference now, but when pressed for an analogy there’s an admirable absence of sour grapes when he observes: ‘I may have invented the wheel but others came along with the tyre, the bearings and everything else.’
:: Peter Noble’s autobiographical book, ‘My Imageination’ is available now from Amazon and Waterstones.
• Article first published by Dorset Life In Dorchester.