Charles K. Kao, 75, was cited for discovering how to transmit light signals over long distances through glass fibres as thin as a human hair.
Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith were honoured for inventing the eye of the digital camera.
Three Americans whose research in the 1960s laid the foundation for digital images and lightning-fast communication shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for their work developing fibre-optic cable and the sensor at the heart of digital cameras.
Charles K. Kao, 75, was cited for discovering how to transmit light signals over long distances through glass fibres as thin as a human hair. His 1966 breakthrough led to the creation of modern fibre-optic communication networks that carry voice, video and high-speed Internet data around the world.
"What the wheel did for transport, the optical fibre did for telecommunications," said Richard Epworth, who worked with Mr Kao at Standard Te l e c o m m u n i c a t i o n s Laboratories in Harlow, England in the 1960s. "Optical fibre enables you to transmit information with little energy over long distances and to transmit information at very high rates."
Willard S. Boyle, 85, and George E. Smith, 79, were honoured for inventing the eye of the digital camera, a sensor able to transform light into a large number of pixels, the tiny points of colour that are the building blocks of every digital image.
Their charged-coupled device, or CCD, is found today in devices ranging from the cheapest pointand-shoot digital camera to robotic medical instruments equipped with video cameras that let surgeons perform delicate operations deep inside the human body.
It also revolutionised astronomy by letting satellites equipped with digital cameras take images from previously unseen regions of outer space and transmit them back to earth.
The work of the three men is "something that has really changed our lives," said Joseph Nordgren, chair of the academy's physics committee.
"The impact on science is enormous." The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said all three have American citizenship. Mr Boyle is also Canadian. Mr Kao was born in Shanghai and is also a British citizen. Phil Schewe, a physicist and spokesman for the American Institute of Physics, called Mr Kao's work "the backbone of our telecommunications world" because of optical fibres' ability to transmit a lot of information through a tiny space at the speed of light.
Mr Boyle and Mr Smith's 1969 discovery at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey "revolutionised photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film," the Academy said. It described the technology as having built on Albert Einstein's discovery of the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the Nobel physics prize in 1921.