Contributed by C. David Chaffee, Chaffee Fiber Optics
The fiber optics community honored its own leader last night with a special two-hour tribute to Charles Kao, considered the founder of fiber optics. This was the first time the entire community has met at its most popular conference following Charlie's elevation to Nobel laureate.
It was in 1966 when Charlie wrote his famous paper with George Hockham suggesting that commerciable levels of photons could transmit voice and data using laser beams over "a glassy" conduit.
Incredibly, the paper's thesis played out. Only four years later, the famous team from Corning made the first optical fibers that met the 20 db/km spec mentioned in the Kao paper as suggesting a potentially commerciable product. This immediately put flesh on the bones of the paper, gave it credibility. There was a path where remaining steps could be played out.
The celebration last night included various aspects of the technology's playing out, including the Corning effort. William Shaver brought the news from the U.K.'s Ministry of Defence in May 1966 that the potential of optical fiber could lead to commercial applications. Corning's Bill Armistead named Robert Maurer to lead a small team. Don Keck and Peter Schultz joined soon thereafter. But glass losses were in the thousands of decibels per kilometer. After much frustration, the team was able to make a fiber that had losses of 17 db/km, which met the standard. Keck wrote in his lab notebook: "Whoopee!"
Corning thereafter decided to put optical fiber into the development phase in 1971. This was followed in 1972 by a further research step forward when gernania doping was added. This led to levels of 4 db/km.
This led to countless depositions and lawsuits as Corning was to successfully defend its patents in the years to come.
Charlie's Nobel speech was repeated by his wife, Gwen, last night. Gwen also gave the speech in Sweden. Charlie, who has Alzheimer's, was at both events but did not further participate.
As Gwen points out, the world knew about the announcement from the Nobel Committee within minutes of its announcement thanks to the fiber optics technology that Charlie had originally founded.
Charlie, who was raised in Shanghai, received special treatment from his parents because two older siblings had died from an epidemic when they were 10 and 12 years of age. He moved to the U.K. for college and stayed thereafter for many years before moving back to China,.He began working at ITT and began research that was to lead to the 1966 paper. His original area of concentration was microwave.
Interestingly, he spent the late 1960s, after publication of the paper, selling the idea of fiber optics around the world--to Japan, Europe and the United States, according to the Nobel speech. "Nothing in our lives was planned. It has been a roller coaster," Gwen observes.
Charlie and Gwen lived in Roanoke, Va. for eight years beginning in 1974. He was named Executive Scientist at ITT and the family moved to Connecticut thereafter.
In the 1980s, Charlie's prophesy that fiber optics would change telecommunications were coming true. Those who recall expensive three minute calls can appreciate how much current calls cost. Gwen suggests that this was the result of fiber optics.
"Charles planted the seed, but it would never have grown without many hands doing the toil," said Gwen. "Charles thanks all those who have worked to do that. And the plant is still growing."
2010-03 March, Fiber optics, OFC/NFOEC, Optics history