Charles K Kao auditorium, Hong Kong

‘Visionary’ Sir Charles Kao, the ‘father of fibre-optics’, celebrated in death

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Hong Kong-American-British engineer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 for developing the fibre-optic technology, which made the Internet and much of modern telecommunications possible.

Charles Kuen Kao was born in 1933 in Shanghai and grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong before moving to London to study electrical engineering. During his time working at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Essex in the 1960s – soon after the laser was invented – Kao demonstrated that using pure glass could resolve the issue of high loss in fibre-optics communication. This proved that optical fibres could be used for high-capacity communications at a time when discussion was moving towards the conclusion that solids were inappropriate for transmitting signals across great distances.

At that time, many researchers were focused on using the millimetre waveguide to transmit information using millimetre waves as an alternative to copper wires, while the STL researchers were working with laser communications using optical fibres (which could suit the UK’s sprawling phone infrastructure). At STL, Kao combined these ideas, leading tests passing light through different solids to see which may be appropriate candidates for long-distance optical communication.

Kao suggested that impurity of the glass materials was the main factor in causing light transmitted to decay, rather than there being fundamental problems with this means of communication. He and his colleagues then demonstrated that the purest known glass – fused silica – could cut signal loss to the extent that this could be used as the basis for communication on a useful scale.

This set in place the process of researching, designing and building fibre-optic telecommunications infrastructure using high-purity glass fibres, later increasing the optical fibres’ transmission capacity to make the Internet possible.

Kao was known for his modest character and it was only decades later that his achievements were acknowledged. He became known as the ‘Father of Fibre Optics’ and the ‘Godfather of Broadband’ for his achievements.

Later, Kao joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he founded the Department of Electronics and later became Vice-Chancellor. He was one of the first researchers to study the environmental effects of land reclamation in Hong Kong. A large, striking golden egg-shaped auditorium in Hong Kong science park was named in his honour.

Kao died in Hong Kong at age 84 on Monday from complications with pneumonia. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 16 years ago and during his later years, Kao and his wife campaigned for greater understanding of the disease.

Kao’s death was reported in the Washington Post, the New York Times and other international publications. He was described in IEEE Spectrum as “a visionary” who “saw the possibilities of fibre-optic communications early and made it happen before its time”.

Professor John Dudley, former President of the European Physical Society, told Phys.Org that: “The word ‘visionary’ is overused, but I think in the case of Charles Kao, it’s entirely appropriate because he really did see a world that was connected, by light, using the medium of optical fibre, and I think society today owes him a great deal for that work.”

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) described him as “a true inspiration for Hong Kong”.

“Charles Kao Kuen was the pride of Hong Kong. A Nobel Prize winner in physics, he was a scientist, an educator and an inspiration […] the world will never forget his work with fibre-optics, which made the internet possible,” said the SCMP editorial dedicated to the late engineer.

“Without Professor Kao’s work, we wouldn’t have the Internet as it is today,” Professor Kenneth Young, a theoretical physicist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the SCMP. According to the SCMP, flowers and a photograph of Kao were laid out at the University with a book of condolences, which was signed by a constant flow of academics and other admirers.

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