Meet Charles Kao, the Father of Fiber Optics and Godfather of Broadband

The man who discovered the immense potential of fiber optics in communications was a Shanghai-born physicist and electrical engineer named Charles Kuen Kao. (Image:  Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease)
The man who discovered the immense potential of fiber optics in communications was a Shanghai-born physicist and electrical engineer named Charles Kuen Kao. (Image: Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease)

Fiber optics is the backbone of today’s hi-speed Internet communications. Without the introduction of fiber optics, streaming Internet videos sans buffering and playing lag-free online games might have remained a pipedream. The man who discovered the immense potential of fiber optics in communications was a Shanghai-born physicist and electrical engineer named Charles Kuen Kao.

Discovery of fiber optics

In the 1960s, light pulses carrying television and telephone signals could only travel around 20 meters through the glass fibers before getting dissipated. This was a problem since it limited the transfer of large data over long distances. At that time, scientists believed that the technology itself was faulty.

However, Kao, together with his team members at Standard Telephone & Cables (STC) Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow, England, discovered that the high loss of data was due to impurities present in the glass. He got the glass fibers purified and combined them with lasers to lay the groundwork of today’s fiber optic cable technology.

“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 fiber… And I think society today owes him a great deal for that work,” John Dudley, a researcher in fiber optics based in France and a former president of the European Physical Society, said to The New York Times.

Charles Kuen Kao doing an early experiment on optical fiber at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory in Harlow, England, in the 1960s.(Image: Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Charles Kao performing an early experiment on optical fibers at the Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, England, in the 1960s. (Image: Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease)

In 2009, Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.” He has published over 100 papers and has more than 30 patents to his name. Kao also predicted that the oceans would one day be littered with fiber optics.

Personal life

Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933. After completing his high school in Hong Kong, Kao moved to England to pursue an engineering degree. It was in England that he met his future wife Gwen and where he made his groundbreaking discovery.

While his scientific knowledge is definitely commendable, what makes Kao truly great is his decision to share the technology. He could have amassed a fortune by patenting fiber optics. But Kao decided against it and allowed the telecommunication industry to use his technology freely so that people across the world could have access to high-speed communication.

Charles Kao and his wife Gwen, after receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Image: Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Charles Kao and his wife Gwen after receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009. (Image: Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease)

In 2002, Kao was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He started experiencing difficulties in speech. In 2016, he lost his ability to maintain body balance. Kao died in Hong Kong in September 2018 at the age of 84. In 2010, Kao, together with his wife Gwen, had set up the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease with the aim of raising public awareness about the medical condition.

“As one of the last wishes of Professor Kao, our Foundation will keep up our work in supporting people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. We hope you can show solidarity with our Foundation in supporting the last wishes of Professor Kao,” the foundation said in a statement (ISPreview).

Kao is popularly known as the “father of fiber optic communications” and the “godfather of broadband.” In addition to Gwen, Kao is survived by two children, Simon and Amanda.

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