Fiber Optics Pioneer Charles Kao Dies At 84 (In Memoriam)

Professor Charles Kao pioneered the development of optic fiber technology for which he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics.

AsianScientist (Sep. 26, 2018) – Professor Charles Kao, affectionately known as the father of fiber optics, passed away on September 23, 2018. Kao received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.”

Born in Shanghai, China, in 1933, Kao obtained his PhD from University College London in 1965 under the supervision of Professor Harold Barlow, a British electrical engineer and fellow of the Royal Society. Even as a graduate student, Kao was actively involved in the research and development of optical communication systems.

During the 1960s, optical communication systems were a nascent technology and the preferred means of carrying information over long distances was via microwaves. Against conventional wisdom at the time, Kao persisted in exploring optic fiber properties.

In 1966, Kao, together with his colleague George Hockham at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories Ltd, published a seminal paper in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical Engineers titled “Dielectric-Fiber Surface Waveguides for Optical Frequencies.” They reported that information loss—or attenuation—within existing optic fibers was due to impurities within glass rather than physical effects such as light scattering. To produce glass that was suitable and practical for optical communication, impurities such as iron, copper and manganese would have to be reduced to part-per-million or even part-per-billion levels.

These findings were initially met with skepticism from the scientific community, but Kao persevered in spreading the idea that glass ‘clean’ enough could be used for long-distance optical communication. Meeting with engineers, scientists, businessmen to discuss techniques to improve the manufacture glass fibers, Kao planted the seeds of high-purity glass production, and a decade later, in 1976, a first-generation optic communication system with a transmission rate of 45 Mb/s was deployed. The transmission capacity of each optic fiber has increased exponentially since.

“The world has been totally transformed because of optical fiber communication. The telephone system has been overhauled and international long-distance calls have become easily affordable. Brand new mega-industries in fiber optics including cable manufacturing and equipment, optical devices, network systems and equipment have been created. Hundreds of millions of kilometers of glass fiber cables have been laid, in the ground and in the ocean, creating an intricate web of connectivity that is the foundation of the World Wide Web,” said Kao in his Nobel lecture in 2009.

Aside from being an excellent researcher, Kao was also deeply involved in training the next generation of scientists. He joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1970 and founded the department of electronic engineering, establishing undergraduate and graduate programs in electronics. He would later become the vice-chancellor of CUHK from 1987 to 1996. During this time, enrolment at CUHK was almost doubled, from 7,000 students in 1987 to 13,000 students by the end of his tenure.

Besides being awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics, Kao has also received numerous honors across the globe, including the Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the Japan Prize in the Field of Information, Computer and Communication Systems and the Prince Philip Medal by the Royal Society of Engineering. He was knighted in 2010.

Kao’s legacy is embedded in the fabric of today’s communication infrastructure and continues to impact the way data is transmitted across the globe. He is survived by his wife and two children.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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