Charles Kuen Kao: Fiber optics

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Charles Kao will be forever known as the "Father of Fiber Optics."

Charles Kao

Kao (Image source:)

Unlike many of this year's innovators honorees, Kao made his discoveries about fiber optics not at Bell Labs, but at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow, England, the research center of the former Standard Telephones and Cables (STC).

During his initial stint at STL, Kao proposed the idea that silica glass that was free of impurities could be used for long range optical communications. Kao and his STL colleagues demonstrated that the loss in existing fiber optics was related to "impurities in the glass, rather than rather than from an underlying problem with the technology itself."

In 1966, Kao and George Hockham presented a study to the IEEE in January 1966 in London and published later that July, theorizing the use of glass fiber for optical communications. A number of the ideas, including the materials and structural features he proposed in this study became the foundation for the way optical communications is conducted today.

Kao also had the vision to foresee the utility of single mode fiber versus multi-mode systems for long-distance optical communications. Today, single-mode fiber is the standard application used in service provider fiber networks.

And while Kao was one of the first scientists to see that optical communications could be used in commercial telecom networks, not everyone was initially convinced.

When he presented his ideas to Bell Labs, one of STL's competitors, they passed on his ideas. However, he was able to gain the attention of Japanese glass and polymer makers on how to improve the process of manufacturing glass fiber. Ultimately, Bell Labs began to take an interest in fiber optics after Kao and M.W. Jones illustrated how they could achieve ultra-transparent glass in 1969.

Complementing his pioneering work in optical communications at STL, Kao helped drive scientific study and research at a number of prominent universities.

In 1970, Kao founded the Chinese University of Hong Kong's (CUHK) Department of Electronics, which morphed into the Department of Electrical Engineering. Over the course of four years, Kao created CUHK's undergraduate and graduate programs in electronics.

When he was working as the ITT, the parent company of STL, as Executive Scientist out of the company's Advanced Technology Center in Connecticut, Kao served as an adjunct professor and Fellow of Trumbull College at Yale University.

He also served as the Vice-Chancellor of CUHK from 1987 to 1996. Following his retirement from CUHK in 1006, Kao spent six months at the Imperial College London Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Then, from 1997 to 2002, he was a visiting profession in that department.