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Charles K. Kao
Sir Charles Kuen Kao was a Hong Kong electrical engineer and physicist who pioneered the development and use of fibre optics in telecommunications. In the 1960s,
Kao created various methods to combine glass fibres with lasers in order to transmit digital data, which laid the groundwork for the evolution of the Internet. "Communication as we know it, including the Internet,
would not exist without fiber optics", said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering in 1999. Known as the "Godfather of Broadband", the "Father of Fibre Optics",
and the "Father of Fiber Optic Communications", Kao was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for "groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication".
Kao held citizenships in the United Kingdom and the United States, and was a permanent resident of Hong Kong. However, in an interview in 2000, he stated that he belongs
and did not consider himself tied to any particular country nor ethnic group. In an open letter that co-written by Kao and his wife in 2009, further declared "Charles [Kao] really does belong to the world! "
Early life and education
Charles Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933, and his ancestral home is in nearby Jinshan, at that time a separate administrative area. He studied Chinese classics at home with his brother, under a tutor.
He also studied English and French at an international school in Shanghai French Concession which was founded by a number of progressive Chinese educators including Cai Yuanpei. Kao's family moved to Taiwan
and then British Hong Kong in 1948 where he completed his secondary education at St. Joseph's College in 1952. He did his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic,
obtaining his Bachelor of Engineering degree. He then pursued research and received his PhD in electrical engineering in 1965 from University of London,
under Professor Harold Barlow of University College London as an external student while working at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, England, the research centre of Standard Telephones and Cables.
It is there that Kao did his first groundbreaking work as an engineer and researcher working alongside George Hockham under the supervision of Alec Reeves.
Ancestry and family
Kao's father was a lawyer who obtained his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1925. He was a professor at Soochow University Comparative Law School of China. His grandfather was Gao Xie,
a famous scholar, poet, literator, artist, and a leading figure of the Southern Society during the late Qing Dynasty. Some influential writers including Gao Xu,,, and were also Gao's close relatives.
His father's cousin was astronomer Ping-Tse Kao. Kao has a younger brother named Timothy Wu Kao, who is a civil engineer and Professor Emeritus at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
His research is in hydrodynamics. Kao met his future wife Gwen May-Wan Kao in London after graduation, when they worked together as engineers at Standard Telephones and Cables. She is British Chinese.
They were married in 1959 in London, and had two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom reside and work in Silicon Valley, California. According to Kao's autobiography,
Kao was a Catholic who attended Catholic Church while his wife attended Anglican Communion.
Fibre optics and communications
[^] In the 1960s at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories based in Harlow, Essex, Kao and his co-workers did their pioneering work in the realisation of fibre optics as a telecommunications medium,
by demonstrating that the high-loss of existing fibre optics arose from impurities in the glass, rather than from an underlying problem with the technology itself. In 1963,
when Kao first joined the optical communications research team he made notes summarising the background situation and available technology at the time, and identifying the key individuals involved.
Initially Kao worked in the team of Antoni E. Karbowiak, who was working under Alec Reeves to study optical waveguides for communications. Kao's task was to investigate fibre attenuation,
for which he collected samples from different fibre manufacturers and also investigated the properties of bulk glasses carefully.
Kao's study primarily convinced himself that the impurities in material caused the high light losses of those fibres. Later that year, Kao was appointed head of the electro-optics research group at STL.
He took over the optical communication program of STL in December 1964, because his supervisor, Karbowiak,
left to take the Chair in Communications in the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of New South Wales , Sydney, Australia. Although Kao succeeded Karbowiak as manager of optical communications research,
he immediately decided to abandon Karbowiak's plan and overall change research direction with his colleague George Hockham. They not only considered optical physics, but also the material properties.
The results were first presented by Kao to the IEE in January 1966 in London, and further published in July with George Hockham. This study first theorized
and proposed to use glass fibres to implement optical communication, the ideas described are largely the basis of today's optical fibre communications. In 1965,
Kao with Hockham concluded that the fundamental limitation for glass light attenuation is below 20 dB/km, which is a key threshold value for optical communications. However, at the time of this determination,
optical fibres commonly exhibited light loss as high as 1,000 dB/km and even more. This conclusion opened the intense race to find low-loss materials and suitable fibres for reaching such criteria. Kao,
together with his new team, pursued this goal by testing various materials. They precisely measured the attenuation of light with different wavelengths in glasses and other materials. During this period,
Kao pointed out that the high purity of fused silica made it an ideal candidate for optical communication.
Kao also stated that the impurity of glass material is the main cause for the dramatic decay of light transmission inside glass fibre,
rather than fundamental physical effects such as scattering as many physicists thought at that time, and such impurity could be removed. This led to a worldwide study and production of high-purity glass fibres.
When Kao first proposed that such glass fibre could be used for long-distance information transfer and could replace copper wires which were used for telecommunication during that era, his ideas were widely disbelieved;
later people realized that Kao's ideas revolutionized the whole communication technology and industry. He also played a leading role in the early stage of engineering and commercial realization of optical communication.
In spring 1966, Kao traveled to the U.S. but failed to interest Bell Labs, which was a competitor of STL in communication technology at that time. He subsequently traveled to Japan and gained support.
Kao visited many glass and polymer factories, discussed with various people including engineers, scientists, businessmen about the techniques and improvement of glass fiber manufacture. In 1969, Kao with M. W.
Jones measured the intrinsic loss of bulk-fused silica at 4 dB/km, which is the first evidence of ultra-transparent glass. Bell Labs started considering fibre optics seriously. Kao developed important techniques
and configurations for glass fibre waveguides, and contributed to the development of different fibre types and system devices which met both civil and military application requirements,
and peripheral supporting systems for optical fiber communication. In mid-1970s, he did seminal work on glass fiber fatigue strength. When named the first ITT Executive Scientist, Kao launched the "Terabit Technology"
program in addressing the high frequency limits of signal processing, so Kao is also known as the "Father of the Terabit Technology Concept". Kao has published more than 100 papers and was granted over 30 patents,
including the water-resistant high-strength fibers. At an early stage of developing optic fibres, Kao already strongly preferred single mode for long-distance optical communication, instead of using multi-mode systems.
His vision later was followed and now is applied almost exclusively. Kao was also a visionary of modern submarine communications cables and largely promoted this idea.
He predicted in 1983 that world's seas would be littered with fibre optics, five years ahead of the time that such a trans-oceanic fibre-optic cable first became serviceable.
Ali Javan's introduction of a steady helium–neon laser and Kao's discovery of fibre light-loss properties now are recognized as the two essential milestones for the development of fiber-optic communications.
Later work
Kao joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1970 to found the Department of Electronics, which later became the Department of Electronic Engineering. During this period, Kao was the reader
and then the chair Professor of Electronics at CUHK; he built up both undergraduate and graduate study programmes of electronics and oversaw the graduation of his first students. Under his leadership,
the School of Education and other new research institutes were established. He returned to ITT Corporation in 1974 in the United States and worked in Roanoke, Virginia, first as Chief Scientist
and later as Director of Engineering. In 1982, he became the first ITT Executive Scientist and was stationed mainly at the Advanced Technology Center in Connecticut. While there, he served as an adjunct professor
and Fellow of Trumbull College at Yale University. In 1985, Kao spent one year in West Germany, at the SEL Research Centre. In 1986, Kao was the Corporate Director of Research at ITT.
He was one of the earliest to study the environmental effects of land reclamation in Hong Kong, and presented one of his first related studies at the conference of ACU in Edinburgh in 1972.
Kao was the vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1987 to 1996. From 1991, Kao was an Independent Non-Executive Director
and a member of the Audit Committee of the Varitronix International Limited in Hong Kong. From 1993 to 1994, he was the President of ASAIHL.In 1996, Kao donated to Yale University,
and the Charles Kao Fund Research Grants was established to support Yale's studies, research and creative projects in Asia. The fund currently is managed by Yale University Councils on East Asian and Southeast Asian Studies.
After his retirement from CUHK in 1996, Kao spent his six-month sabbatical leave at the Imperial College London Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering; from 1997 to 2002,
he also served as visiting professor in the same department. Kao was chairman and member of the Energy Advisory Committee of Hong Kong for two years, and retired from the position on July 15, 2000.
Kao was a Member of the Council of Advisors on Innovation and Technology of Hong Kong, appointed on April 20, 2000. In 2000, Kao co-founded the Independent Schools Foundation Academy, which is located in Cyberport,
Hong Kong. He was its founding Chairman in 2000, and stepped down from the Board of the ISF in December 2008. Kao was the keynote speaker at IEEE GLOBECOM 2002 in Taipei, Taiwan. In 2003,
Kao was named a Chair Professor by special appointment at the Electronics Institute of the College of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, National Taiwan University. Kao then worked as the chairman
and CEO of Transtech Services Ltd. a telecommunication consultancy in Hong Kong. He was the founder, chairman and CEO of ITX Services Limited. From 2003 to January 30, 2009, Kao was an independent non-executive director
and member of the audit committee of Next Media.
Later life and death
Kao suffered from Alzheimer's disease from early 2004 and had speech difficulty, but had no problem recognising people or addresses. Kao's father also suffered from the same disease. Beginning in 2008,
he resided in Mountain View, California, United States, where he moved from Hong Kong in order to live near his children and grandchild. Pottery making, a traditional Chinese handiwork, was a hobby of Kao's.
Kao also enjoyed reading Wuxia novels. On October 6, 2009, when Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the study of the transmission of light in optical fibres and for fibre communication,
he said, "I am absolutely speechless and never expected such an honour". Kao's wife Gwen told the press that the prize will primarily be used for Charles's medical expenses, after paying tax to the US government.
In 2010 Charles and Gwen Kao founded the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease to raise public awareness about the disease and provide support for the patients. In 2016,
Kao lost the ability to maintain his balance. At the end-stage of his dementia he was cared for by his wife and intended not to be kept alive with life support or have CPR performed on him.
Kao died at Bradbury Hospice in Hong Kong on 23 September 2018 at the age of 84.
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