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Research Highlights-Charles Kao

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Research Highlights

On Charles Kao and the
Birth of Fibre Optic Communications

I was asked to return from the USA to the British Post Office Research Centre near Ipswich in 1971 to lead the optical fibre development team there and soon after arriving, I found myself involved in a joint programme with staff at the ITT Laboratory in Harlow, known then as Standard Telecommunications Labs (STL). (The British Post Office lab later became BT Labs. and STL became a part of Nortel). So it was in late 1971 or early 1972 that I first met Charles. We became good friends and met each other during lab visits, at conferences and under the auspices of the Chinese University in Hong Kong countless times.

John E. Midwinter (OBE, Ph.D DSc) is a Fellow of IEEE, IEE, IoP, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. He was President of IEE in 2000–2001. He is author of over 200 papers, several books (inc the prize winning “Optical Fibres for Transmission’’. He was formerly Head of Optical Communications at BTRL (1977–84). He joined University College London in 1984 as BT Professor of Optoelectronics. He was Vice-Provost of University College London (1994–99) and is now an Emeritus Professor.

One of the first papers I read in 1971 was the famous Kao & Hockham1 one, published in Proc. IEE in 1966 and setting out the notion of using a glass fibre waveguide to carry laser signals for telecommunications purposes. At the time, the idea must have seemed preposterous. The very small dimensions needed for the single mode fibre core made it almost impossible to imagine a “Telco” technician handling and jointing it whilst down a manhole with water dripping down his neck. At the time, the existing glass fibre losses were of order 1000 dB/km yet the paper proposed less than 20dB/km. Any sensible person could see it was crazy!

Less well known were a series of papers that Charles and others published2,3,4 in 1968–69. Having set out in 1966 the attenuation necessary to have any chance of competing with the current (coaxial) cable technology, Charles set out to discover whether glasses existed with attenuations below 20 dB/km. In what always seemed to me to be an amazing set of experiments, he succeeded using bulk glass samples of order 10 cm long. By my calculation, an attenuation of 20 dB/km corresponds to a loss of about 0.0005 per 10 cm, an astonishingly small amount to measure. Yet my memory tells me that in this series of experiments, Charles and colleagues showed that optical material already existed with losses well below the target figure and a typical example was pure silica. There remained the small problem of how to convert the bulk material into a fibre!

Photo from 2009 Nobel Festivities. Left to right: Photonics Society Past President Prof. Alan Willner, Dr. Charles Kao holding Photonics Society Plaque, Frank Tong, Kao family friend and long-time photonics person (IEEE Fellow),
formerly of IBM Yorktown, Professor at the Chinese Univ.
of Hong Kong, and Vice President of SAE Magnetics
in Hong Kong. Plaque presented to Dr. Kao from Photonics Society in December 2009.

Looking back at his work a decade or so later, I was forcibly struck by the very unusual combination it embraced. There was the imaginative vision to propose the single mode glass fibre guide to carry an optical signal, the down-to-earth practicality of showing that it must have an attenuation below 20 dB/km to have any chance of competing with the established telecommunications transmission technologies and finally the astonishing experimental work that showed the existence of suitable materials to form the fibre from.

Later, Charles moved to the ITT Laboratory in Roanoke, Virginia and later still, I seem to recall, to ITT in Shelton, Connecticut. In the mid-1980s I was asked to join a small panel headed by Charles to advise on the establishment of a new Engineering Faculty at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). During this period, we started meeting again regularly in Hong Kong. We visited roughly every 6 months over a period of a few years. It was during this period, in 1987 that Charles was appointed Vice Chancellor of CUHK. I will long remember visiting him and Gwen, his wife, at their rather splendid home located on a glorious wooded hillside close to the campus. And then later still, we both moved into retirement and took up new interests. Sadly, since then we have not met but who knows what the future holds. Throughout, Charles has been an amusing companion and a good friend and it seems very fitting that he has now received the ultimate honour of the Nobel Prize for his work. It is even rather splendid to be able say to one’s friends that knows a Nobel Prize winner and worked in the same field as him! And finally, it must surely be of note that the Nobel Physics committee has recognised the importance of Applied Physics.


  1. K.C. Kao and G.A. Hockham, “Dielectric-Fibre Surface Waveguides for optical frequencies” Proc. IEEE, 113, 1151 et seq (1966).
  2. K.C. Kao and T.W. Davies, “Spectrophotometric Studies of Ultra Low Loss Optical Glasses I. Single Beam Method,” Journal of Physics E–Scientific Instruments Vol. 1 (11) p.1063 et seq (1968).
  3. M.W. Jones and K.C. Kao, “Spectrophotometric Studies of Ultra Low Loss Optical Glasses 2. Double Beam Method,”: Journal of Physics E-Scientific Instruments Vol. 2 (4) p.331 et seq (1969).
  4. C.R. Wright and K.C. Kao, “Spectrophotometric Studies of Ultra Low Loss Optical Glasses 3. Ellipsometric Determination of Surface Reflectances,” Journal of Physics E-Scientific Instruments Vol. 2 (7) p. 579 et seq. (1969).

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