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A Happy 50th Birthday to fibre optic cables

21st July 2016

In July 1966, Charles Kao looked into glass and saw the future of telecoms............

And so it was that right here in Harlow, Essex, that one of the most important technical developments in modern telecommunications was being researched.

Fibre optic cabling is 50 years old this month following the publication in the July 1966 issue of Proceedings of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the IET), Charles Kao proposed using lasers for communications "injected" into a pure silica glass waveguide.

What researchers already knew was that lasers could be used for communications but some scientists advocated that the best application was either in free space optics or using some kind of "hollow" waveguide.

Dr. Kao's huge contribution to the modern world was to determine that if a glass fibre was manufactured from extremely pure silica, the loss or attenuation in this glass would be sufficiently low enough to carry a pulsed signal, over long distances.

As the IEEE relates, Dr Kao was working in the UK's Standard Telephones & Cables in Harlow, Essex, which later became part of Nortel. The Australian division was acquired by Alcatel which researched using plastic as a waveguide.

What Dr. Kao and other researchers (the IEEE singles out Rudolf Kompfner at Bell Labs) had already realised was that the impurities in the glass that were the problem, with both researchers paths crossing each other when Kompfner looked at the best options for glass then available, only to find that the attenuation was thousands of decibels per kilometre, so he continued with Bell Labs' focus on hollow waveguides, while Dr. Kao searched for high-purity silica for what he then began to call, optical fibres.

Determined to solve the problem, Dr. Kao worked with the University of Sheffield's Harold Rawson and with his assistant George Hockham. It was this trio that published the 1966 paper.

The publication of this groundbreaking research sparked an international research effort. Dr. Kao's original question to Rawson was whether "20 dB of attenuation per kilometre was feasible"; And so it was that by 1979, Corning was making fibres with 0.2 dB/km attenuation.

Fibre optic cabling's future in the telecommunications network was assured by this dogged determination to develop fibre optics and we here at Total Comms Training stand on Dr. Koa's shoulders every time we present a fibre optic training course.

The story ends with the acceptance of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics for his 1966 paper by Dr. Kao.....


"The Nobel Prize in Physics 2009". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 21 Jul 2016.



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