Any good telecoms scholar has probably come across Charles K. Kao.
But even if you aren’t familiar with Kao, you’ve benefitted from his work. You might know him better as the father of fiber optic communication.
Quick rewind: fiber-optic communication is a method of transmitting information from one place to another via pulses of light sent through an optical fiber. This is the same type of cable used in the submarine systems that power the global internet. (And a single, modern subsea fiber-optic fiber is capable of carrying more than 10 Tbps of capacity. It’s amazing.)
Kao’s biography tells the story of a child born in China in the 1930s. He enrolled at St. Joseph’s College in Hong Kong in the late 1940s. Years later, he made it to Woolwich Polytechnic in London, and after that he pursued research, receiving his PhD in electrical engineering from University College London.
It wasn’t until the 1960s at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, Essex, that Kao got involved in the work that would define his career. While pursuing his PhD, Kao and co-workers did their pioneering work with fiber optics, exploring the technology as a telecommunications medium.
Here, Kao experimented with the world’s first single-mode optical communication fiber, which was made of glass.
He investigated light-loss properties in materials of optic fibers to determine if they could be removed. It was Kao’s team to first demonstrate that the high-loss of existing fiber optics actually arose from impurities within glass.
Subsequently, Kao and his colleague George Hockham coauthored a paper that jumpstarted the optical fiber revolution. (Superfact: their work concluded that the fundamental limitation for glass light attenuation is below 20 dB/km.)
In simpler terms? Kao’s discovery opened the door to a worldwide study and production of glass fibers. And in doing so, long-distance information transfer soon transitioned from copper wires to fused silica.
Further, Kao predicted in 1983 that world's oceans would be filled with fiber optics. And this was several years before such a trans-oceanic fiber-optic cable became serviceable. (It's no wonder he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.)
In short: we have Kao and his colleagues to thank for the fiber-optic technology that you’re probably using to read this blog post right now.