Nobel Prize Awarded to Fiber-Optic Pioneer

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One of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics was the researcher who figured out how to send wavelengths of light over long distances of fiber-optic cabling, thereby making high-speed cable and telco backbone networks possible (as well as fiber-to-the-home networks, like Verizon’s FiOS).

In 1966, Charles K. Kao — then director of engineering at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, in the U.K. — made a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fiber optics.

According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ announcement, Kao “carefully calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers. With a fiber of purest glass it would be possible to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers, compared to only 20 meters for the fibers available in the 1960s. Kao’s enthusiasm inspired other researchers to share his vision of the future potential of fiber optics.”

Kao’s discovery led to the manufacture of the first ultrapure fiber four years later, in 1970, by Corning Glass Works. Kao, 75, was born in Shanghai and holds dual American and British citizenship. He retired in 1996.

If all the fiber-optic cables around the globe were stretched end to end, it would result in a single thread more than 1 billion kilometers long, according to the academy — enough to encircle the globe more than 25,000 times.

The other half of the $1.4 million prize went to two Bell Labs researchers, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who invented an imaging semiconductor circuit, referred to as “the digital camera’s electronic eye.”

According to the New York Times, in recent years the Nobel physics prize has veered “between perplexing, esoteric discoveries and more comprehensible technology developments.” This year’s honorees would fall in the latter category.