How the fibre communications revolution began

Charles awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics

“for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication”

Charles Kao and Gwen with Nobel medal

Charles Kao and wife Gwen with Nobel medal

The Masters of Light

Gwen Kao’s acceptance speech on behalf of Charles
December 8th, 2009, at Stockholm University

Charles pioneered the use of a single mode dielectric (glass) optical fibre waveguide for long distance communications at a time when the losses of the best available glasses made the idea seem impossible.  The idea  was in competition with the technology of Long-haul Microwave Waveguide, which was being developed at several laboratories around the world.

Souvenir Hong Kong stamp, Charles Kao Nobel Prize in Physics 2009

Souvenir Hong Kong stamp, issued to commemorate Charles Kao’s 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics


Plaque in Harlow UTC, unveiled 2012Plaque in Harlow UTC, unveiled in 2012 by Mr Chen Futau from the Chinese Embassy

Finally, the Washington Post demonstrated some sloppy journalism when it announced the Nobel prize with:

Forgive the question, but have you had a colonoscopy yet? If the answer is yes, you can thank Charles K. Kao…….

But No: Charles Kao did not invent the fibre endoscope (which used an array of fibres to communicate a visual image).

2016: Half a Century of Optical Fibre Communications

2016 was the 50th anniversary of the publication that started it all.

Optical Fibre has transformed our world yet is now almost completely ignored.

The reasons?:

  • It is largely hidden (beneath our streets and oceans).
  • No surviving commercial organisation has an interest in promoting the STL history.
  • Few remember just how poor global communications used to be.

Useful Links

For anyone who enjoyed STL

STL Quarter Century Club

For the full story of optical communication see

"City of Light - The Story of Fiber Optics" by Jeff Hecht

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