How the fibre communications revolution began

The optical communication team at STL

(Standard Telecommunication Laboratories)

Alec Reeves – 1902-1971

Famous for inventing the whole idea of a digitising analogue signals to ensure error free communication (1937).
Famous for inventing OBOE, a highly accurate bomber navigation system used during WWII.

Alec was the initial leader of the optical communications research team at STL in Harlow.

More information about Alec’s life

Alec Reeves, father of the digital age

“Father of the digital age”

Sir Charles Kuen Kao

Charles Kao 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. It was in competition with the technology of Long-haul Microwave Waveguide, which was being developed as several laboratories around the world.

Awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for pioneering optical fibre communication.

Charles Kao experimenting with a single-mode optical fibre

Charles Kao experimenting with a prototype single-mode optical fibre made of glass, in the lab at STL

George Hockham – 1938 – 2013

George Hockham used microwaves to model optic fibre performance at a time when experiments were impossible with fibre.  He calculated the level of signal loss that might be caused by geometric imperfections in a future fibre. He helped to establish the viability of using optical fibres for communications.

Photo of George Hockham

Microwave expert. Co-author of historic first publication

Other early team members

When Charles Kao transferred from working on Long-Haul Microwave Waveguides, to the Optical Communication group, he made some notes which are a clear record of the members at the time (1963) as follows:.

R 10: Murray Ramsay, John Lytolis, Ian Turner, Bernard Fairchild, Ron Lomax, Simon Laurence,

R 40: Tony Horsley (KDP Cavity), Albert Kaiser, Chris Dobson – Laser Production

R 10: Kit Ballantyne, Bill Taylor – Laser Theory

R 10: Brian Prosser – Pulse generator
R 70: Reg Teesdale – Pulse circuit

The team rapidly grew to include: Chris Wright (thin-film waveguide), Mervyn Jones, Trevor Davis, Robin Worthington and many others. When I joined STL in 1966 I provided Charles Kao with high-speed electronics.

The STL organisation chart for 1967 showing the optical team

Later STL Org charts on Flickr

See photos of many others in our Rogues Gallery

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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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