Fiber Pioneer Wins Nobel Prize

Talk about a leading light.

One of the recipients of this year's Nobel Prize for Physics was Charles Kao, the researcher who figured out how to send wavelengths of light over long distances of fiber-optic cabling. His innovation made today's high-speed cable and telco backbone networks possible, as well as fiber-to-the-home networks, like Verizon Communications' FiOS.

In 1966, Kao was director of engineering at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in the United Kingdom, when he determined how to transmit light over long distances by improving the purity of the glass. Optical fibers and lasers to transmit light over them already existed, but were limited to distances of only about 20 meters. Using fiber of purest glass, Kao found it would be possible to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers.

According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which bestows the Nobel physics and chemistry prizes, “Kao's enthusiasm inspired other researchers to share his vision of the future potential of fiber optics.” The discovery led to the manufacture of the first ultrapure fiber four years later, in 1970, by Corning Glass Works.

Kao, 75, was born in Shanghai and holds dual American and British citizenship. He worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a professor in the 1970s and returned to serve as vice chancellor from 1987 to 1996.

In a statement last week, released via the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Kao said: “This is very, very unexpected. Fiber optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years. It certainly is due to the fiber-optical networks that the news has traveled so fast.”

According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, if all the fiber-optic cables around the globe were stretched end to end, it would result in a single thread more than 1 billion kilometers (621 million miles) long — enough to circle the globe more than 25,000 times.

The other half of the $1.4 million prize for physics went to two Bell Labs researchers, Willard Boyle and George Smith, who invented an imaging semiconductor circuit known as a charge-coupled device, or CCD, which the academy called “the digital camera's electronic eye.”