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Four Remarkable Nobel Prize Winning Engineers

1st March 2018

Engineers are not attention magnets, and in many cases, their work precedes them. There are occasions, however, when engineers do enjoy their time in the limelight, and their achievements are justifiably celebrated in the public domain. One of those opportunities arises every year, when the iconic Nobel Prize awards are handed out.

As one of the six main categories, the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to some truly fascinating engineers over the years, and here we take a look at some of them:

Wilhelm Röntgen - 1903

The first winner of the Nobel Prize of Physics was a German mechanical engineer by the name of Wilhelm Röntgen. He was responsible for the discovery of electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength of rays, once named Röntgen rays, and now widely known as X-rays. Having originally been testing vacuum equipment, Röntgen ate and slept in his laboratory day and night as his experiments led him to the discovery. He used a vacuum tube and electrodes attached to a coil in order to generate an electrostatic charge. It is entirely possible that the modest Röntgen discouraged the use of his own name in conjunction with the rays – he even refused to take out a patent on the invention so the technology could be used for the greater good.

William Shockley – 1956
As an organisation which is involved in the semiconductor industry - supporting R&D institutes and labs - William Shockley is of particular interest to IES. American Shockley was the manager of a research group which was recognised by the Nobel Prize for its work with semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect. Shockley is credited with single-handedly paving the way for California’s ‘Silicon Valley’ to become the hub of electronics innovation which it is today, thanks to his work in pushing a new transistor design into the market. During World War II, Shockley played an important role in combatting the threat of German submarines by improving convoying techniques. He went on to set up his own semiconductor firm, Shockley Semiconductor, and become a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.

Eugene Wigner – 1963
Along with Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd, Wigner was responsible for the Szilárd- Einstein letter that convinced US President Franklin D Roosevelt to undertake the Manhattan Project which developed atomic energy for bombs; a decision which would ultimately lead to the end of World War II. Wigner was awarded the Medal of Merit for his contribution to designing production nuclear reactors, and another major accolade would be bestowed on him in 1963, when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Physics as a recognition for his work on the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles. The Hungarian-American Wigner confessed that during the War he was so concerned with being tracked down by the Germans should they win, that he refused to have his fingerprints taken.

Shuji Nakamura – 2014
Nakamura is one of several Japanese winners of the award over the the past decade. An Electrical Engineer of the highest distinction, he personally holds over 100 patents, and is the creator of the white LED and blue laser diodes utilised in HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Nakamura won the 2014 Nobel Physics Prize for his invention of efficient blue LEDs which enable bright and energy-saving white light sources; an environmentally friendly option. According to the Nobel Prize organisation: “In the spirit of Alfred Nobel the Prize rewards an invention of greatest benefit to mankind; using blue LEDs, white light can be created in a new way.”

The next Nobel Prize for Physics Laureates will be recognised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in a ceremony on Monday, 10th December, 2018, at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

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