George Smith: Sailing Into The History Books

By Ann Dermody

For most people, 17 years spent sailing around the world after retiring from a stellar career would be quite the achievement. But for this octogenarian, there was also that little matter of a Nobel Prize.

George Smith at seaGeorge Smith in his 31-foot Southern Cross, Apogee. (Photo: George Smith)

"It had been in my head for as long as I can recall," George E. Smith says about wanting a boat. The 86-year-old remembers that vague desire turning to yearning somewhere around the time he joined the U.S. Navy. It followed him through four years as an aerographer's mate (weatherman) and to the University of Pennsylvania in 1952, where he helped pay his tuition with the G.I. Bill after serving in the Korean War. By the time he'd completed his doctorate in physics at the University of Chicago in 1959 and taken a job in research at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey — the only institution at which he ever interviewed, and the only job he had his whole career — the yearning had turned into an undeniable need.

"I was 28, and it was a small sneak-box daysailer I used on weekends at Long Beach Island and on Barnegat Bay," Smith says of his first boat. He had it for a year and a half before it got destroyed in a hurricane. A week later, he bought a 19-foot wooden boat with a small cabin that he kept for six years, until it, too, was snatched away by a hurricane.

With several years on the water under his belt, Smith treated himself to a brand-new Morgan 22 and began dreaming about how someday he'd take off and go long-distance sailing. "I think I read every around-the-world sailing book that had ever been written," he says.

In 1975, Smith's wife died, leaving him a single parent to three children. Plans for a circumnavigation suddenly seemed remote, if not unattainable. But as luck would have it, a couple of years later he met Janet Murphy, a teacher who also loved sailing, and the pair went on to have many adventures, taking the boat from Northeast Harbor, Maine, to Beaufort, North Carolina.

In 1986 they started planning their trip in earnest with the purchase of a seagoing 31-foot Southern Cross named Apogee, semi-custom built for the task in Bristol, Rhode Island. After two shakedown trips to Bermuda, they set off and, apart from occasional short visits home, didn't come back until 2003. When asked why they stopped, he says simply, "We made it around the world."

World map with Smith's route and the years he visitedSmith's route and the years he visited. (Photo: Thinkstockphotos.com/dikobraziy)

Apogee is now safely moored to their New Jersey backyard dock on a lagoon leading to Barnegat Bay. "I've taken up fishing in my old age," says Smith, who also has a 23-foot outboard powerboat. "I still go fishing, but please notice I did not say 'catch fish,'" he adds with a laugh.

And that little matter of being only one of 874 individuals in 115 years to win a Nobel Prize? In 1969, while at Bell Laboratories, Smith and his colleague Willard Boyle invented the charge-coupled device, a major piece of technology used in digital imaging. Forty years later, it won them the Nobel Prize in Physics. "It was a long time before it was acknowledged by the Nobel committee," he says of his invention, although the same year he and Boyle won the prize, they shared it with another scientist who separately invented complementary work with light transmission through fiber optics.

"They called up early one morning, and the person on the phone said his name was George Smith. I thought it was someone hazing me at 5 in the morning. I said, 'My name is George Smith.' The guy's name really was George Smith, too. But of course he was calling from Sweden. I was less annoyed when I heard the reason for the call," he says. 

— Published: February/March 2017


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