Sir Charles Kao, the father of fibre optics, who transformed the world in Harlow, passes away

News / Mon 24th Sep 2018 pm30 07:20pm

SIR Charles Kao, the electrical engineer who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics with Willard Boyle and George Smith, has died in Hong Kong aged 84. Kao was awarded half of the 2009 prize “for ground-breaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication.”

Kao was born on 4 November 1933 in Shanghai, China. He studied electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich) and received his PhD in electrical engineering from University College London in 1965 under the supervision of Harold Barlow.

While pursuing his PhD, he was employed by Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) at the firm’s Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow.

While working at STL in 1966, Kao realized that optical fibres made from high-purity glass could be used to transmit light signals over long distances. A few years later, he showed that fibres made of fused silica had the required purity and could also be easily manufactured. This was a crucial step towards the development of fibre-optical telecoms networks, which provide the backbone to the Internet.

In 1970, Kao was granted a four-year leave of absence from STL to help create a new electronics department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Kao moved to the US in 1974 to work for International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), which owned STC. At ITT, he focussed on boosting the capacity of optical networks and rose to become director of research at ITT in 1985 – just as the company was selling its research division to Alcatel of France.

He returned to Hong Kong in 1987 to become vice-chancellor of the CUHK, where he oversaw a huge expansion of the university. Enrolment increased from 7000 on his arrival to 13,000 by the time he retired in 1996. He later published an autobiography entitled A Time and A Tide.

Kao had Alzheimer’s disease for 16 years before his death and in 2010 he co-founded the Charles K Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease with his wife, Gwen Kao. The foundation aims to raise the public awareness of Alzheimer’s disease in Hong Kong.

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