George Smith was born and raised in New York. He joined the US Navy after high school and took a math course at a local university while stationed at an air base in Miami. After serving his country for four years, and with financial help thanks to the GI Bill of Rights, he entered the University of Pennsylvania as a sophomore to study physics. He went on to gain a Masters and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. Smith then joined Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, USA, performing research under Willard Boyle.
He studied the electronic properties of semimetals and from there branched into topics such as thermoelectric cooling and low temperature electronic devices. In 1969, he and Boyle invented the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) that is used today in digital cameras and satellites. A CCD is able to move charge around in little bins that can be changed to a digital value. This technology enabled digital imaging. On a personal note, Smith was an avid sailor, and when he retired in 1986, he and his wife took more than a decade to sail around the world.
Smith and Willard Boyle shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for their work in electronic memory design. Smith received, with Boyle, the Edwin H. Land Medal in 2001.