Charles K. Kao Biography

(Electrical Engineer and Physicist Who Developed the Use of "Fiber Optics" in Telecommunications)

Birthday: November 4, 1933 (Scorpio)

Born In: Shanghai, China

Charles K. Kao was a noted electrical engineer and a physicist, who developed the use of fiber optics in telecommunications. Raised in Hong Kong, at that time under British rule, he moved to England after matriculation. There he studied Electrical Engineering, eventually joining Standard Telephones & Cables. Later, he was moved to STC’s research laboratory, where his task was to investigate fiber attenuation. Very quickly, he realized that light loss in fibers was caused by impurities in it. Over the time, he created various techniques to merge glass fibers with lasers so that digital data could be transmitted without much loss, thus laying the groundwork for the evolution of the Internet. For this discovery, he was not only called the ‘Godfather of Broadband’, but also received numerous awards and honors, including the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. At the time of his death in Hong Kong, he held dual citizenship of UK and USA.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Sir Charles Kuen Kao

Died At Age: 84


Spouse/Ex-: May-Wan Kao

father: Kao Chun-Hsiang

mother: King Tsing Fong

Born Country: China

Electrical Engineers St. Joseph's College

Died on: September 23, 2018

place of death: Sha Tin, Hong Kong

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics

Notable Alumni: University Of Greenwich

City: Shanghai, China

Founder/Co-Founder: Independent Schools Foundation Academy

More Facts

education: University College London, University Of London, St. Joseph's College, University Of Greenwich

Childhood & Early Life

Charles Kuen Kao was born on 4 November 1933, in Shanghai, China. His father, Kao Chun-Hsiang, an alumnus of Michigan Law School, USA, was a successful Shanghai attorney. Later, he became a legal adviser and an instructor in Chinese law in Hong Kong. His mother’s name was King Tsing Fong.

Born elder of his parents’ two surviving children, he had a younger brother called Timothy. He also had two elder siblings, a sister and a brother, who died of measles before he was born.

Because of the death of their elder siblings, the brothers led a protected life, beginning their education at home under home tutors. Around 1943, Charles K. Kao began his formal education at the elite Shanghai World School.

Although China was under Japanese occupation since 1937, they were quite untouched by the war, having their home inside Shanghai French Concession. The Second World War too had little impact on their life. But in 1948, with the advent of the Red Army, the family decided to leave Shanghai.

After a short stay at Taipei, the family settled down in Hong Kong in 1948. Here Charles was enrolled at St. Joseph’s College. Academically excellent, he got straight A’s in the school matriculation examinations.

In 1953, he moved to England, where he enrolled at Woolwich Polytechnic (now University of Greenwich), London. After passing his A-level from there, he went on to enter an engineering course at the same institute. Eventually in 1957, he graduated from there with a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering.

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In 1957, shortly after graduating from College, Charles K. Kao joined Standard Telephones & Cables (STC), a British subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph Co (ITT). For one year, he was made to rotate through different sections, eventually settling down in the microwave division in 1958.

In 1960, he applied for lectureship at Loughborough Polytechnic; but decided to stay back when STC offered him a job at their research unit, the Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL), at Harlow. Their lawyers took care of the legal matters pertaining to the Polytechnic, also having his house deposit refunded.

In 1963, Kao joined STL’s optical communications research team. Initially working with Antoni E. Karbowiak, his task was to investigate fiber attenuation, in course of which he started collecting samples, investigating the properties of bulk glasses.

In late 1963, he was appointed head of the electro-optics research group, succeeding Karbowiak in the post. By then, he had realized that light loss in fibers was caused by impurities in it. He now decided to abandon Karbowiak’s plan and started working on a new direction.

In 1964, as George Alfred Hockham joined Kao’s team, they started investigating not only optical physics but also the material properties. Meanwhile in December 1964, Charles K. Kao took over STL’s optical communication program. Concurrently, he started working for his doctoral degree, receiving his PhD degree from the University of London in 1965.

In 1966, Kao and Hockham submitted their first paper, ‘Dielectric fibre surface waveguides for optical frequencies’, at a London meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. In this paper, they proposed that fibers made of ultra-pure glass could transmit light for distances of kilometers without a total loss of signal.

Continuing to work on the concept, they were able to measure the intrinsic loss of bulk-fused silica at 4 dB/km in 1969. It became the first evidence of ultra-transparent glass.

In 1970, the first practical fiber-optic cable was successfully produced. Also in the same year, Charles K. Kao took two years leave of absence from STL and joined the faculty of Chinese University of Hong Kong, helping it to set up its electronics department. The leave was later extended till 1974.

By 1974, Kao moved to the USA, where he became the Chief Scientist at ITT’s Electro-Optical Products Division in Roanoke, Virginia. By then, his concept of fiber optic cables had reached pre-production development stage and the company wanted him to oversee the work.

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In 1981, he was promoted to the post of the Vice President and Director of Engineering at the same division. Next in 1983, he was appointed the Executive Scientist and Director of Research, Advanced Technology Center in Shelton, Connecticut, a position he held till 1987.

Later Years

In 1987, Charles K. Kao returned to Hong Kong, where he served as the Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, holding the position till 1996. Meanwhile in 1991, he became 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 the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning (ASAIHL). From 1996 to 2001, he was the CEO of Transtech Services Ltd and from 2000 to 2007, the CEO of ITX Services Ltd, both located in Hong Kong.

Major Works

Charles K. Kao is best known for his groundbreaking work on development and use of fiber optics in telecommunications. Working with his colleague, George Alfred Hockham, and others he successfully discovered how light can be transmitted through fiber-optic cables without substantial loss.

Awards & Achievements

Kao had received numerous awards and honors, chief among them being the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he received in 2009 for his "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication". Other important medals include Faraday Medal (1989), IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal(1985) and the Marconi Prize (1985).

In 2010, he became a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE). Also in the same year, he received The Grand Bauhinia Medal (GBM), Hong Kong SAR. He is also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering.

Family & Personal Life

In 1959, Charles K. Kao married Wong May-wan (Gwen), a fellow engineer at Standard Telephones & Cables. They had two children, a son called Simon, born in 1961 and a daughter called Amanda, born in 1963.

In 2004, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. In 2010, he and his wife founded the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease Limited in order to promote awareness about the disease.

Charles K. Kao died on 23 September 2018 in Hong Kong from unspecific cause. He was then 84 years old and was survived by his wife and children.

See the events in life of Charles K. Kao in Chronological Order

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