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Charles K. Kao

Asiaweek Pictures
BORN: November 1933 in Shanghai, China
1960: Joins ITT's lab in London, starts research on fiber optics
1966: Publishes paper outlining key features of fiber-optic telecommunications technology
1970: Establishes the electronics department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, while on leave from ITT
1996: Wins Japan Prize for work on fiber optics
1999: Wins Draper Prize for achievement in engineering

If you suffer from information overload and are looking for someone to blame, Charles K. Kao is the man. Trace back the development timelines for the Internet, modern telecommunications, video conferencing, electronic commerce, even faxes. All intersect at a laboratory in London where in 1963, a 30-year-old Kao began experiments that culminated in the proof of a visionary concept - that strands of glass fibers thinner than human hair and cheaper to produce than fishing line can transmit near-limitless amounts of digitized data on pulses of laser light.

The computer normally gets the credit as the chief enabler of the information age. But without fiber-optic communications networks, we'd be sharing data by mailing floppy disks to each other, not clicking on the Send icon. Traditional copper-wire transmission lines just can't take all the information traffic we now generate. The first transpacific telephone cable could handle 91 simultaneous phone calls - against 1.6 billion for today's fiber-optic cables. "Communication as we know it, including the Internet, would not exist without fiber optics," said William Wulf, president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, when Kao received the Draper Prize earlier this year for outstanding achievement in engineering.

Other scientists contributed to the development of modern networks. But it was Shanghai-born Kao, 66, now known as "the father of fiber optics," who demonstrated how the impossible could happen. In the 1960s, his theoretical and practical research at International Telephone & Telegraph Corp.'s Standard Telecommunications Laboratory produced 29 patented discoveries, including methods for manufacturing optically pure glass fibers, for coupling them efficiently to lasers, and for splicing fibers together to form communications lines. These achievements of Kao, which laid the foundation for the Information Age stretching out before us, are the most beneficial to Asian science and technology in this century.


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

Even before his groundbreaking work at ITT, it was well-known that rods of glass-like substances could carry light from one place to another. In 1900, inventors marketed bent rods of quartz as dental illuminators, and in the 1940s doctors were peering down dark throats with plexiglass tongue depressors that glow. Researchers had delved into the idea of using glass strands as communications links by flashing light on and off at one end of the line to transmit a kind of Morse code to the other end. But no one could solve the puzzle of "fiber attenuation," the dimming of light (and the resulting degradation of light signals) after passing through just a few meters of glass.

Most scientists thought glass just wasn't suitable for transmitting light over long distances. But Kao argued that signal degradation was due to impurities in fibers, not the glass itself. "Nobody bought my ideas," he recalls in a recent interview in Hong Kong, where he now lives. He persisted. "The prospect of producing something 1,000 times better than copper wire was very tempting," he says. "When you are young, you are fervent about the things you believe in." In 1966, Kao and another young engineer named George Hockham published a theory that suggested how signal loss could be greatly reduced so that glass communication lines could run for kilometers instead of just a few meters. That same year Kao unveiled a fiber-optic strand that could carry a "gigacycle" of information - the equivalent of 200 TV channels or more than 200,000 telephone calls.

In contrast to the Internet's current gold-rush mentality, Kao's career seems almost quaint. His achievements have been widely acknowledged. Besides the Draper award, he won in 1996 the Japan Prize, the country's equivalent of the Nobel. In 1985 he was awarded a Marconi International Fellowship by the United Nations, and he also received the Alexander Graham Bell Medal from the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. But his discoveries did not make him fabulously wealthy. Kao has earned no royalties and started no spin-offs (the patent rights belong to ITT).

No regrets, however: Kao seeks knowledge, not money. In 1970 he took a leave of absence from ITT to establish an electronics department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he later served as vice chancellor. Today, he is chairman of Transtech Services Ltd., a small telecom consultancy in Hong Kong. Yes, he has a website,, which solicits public input, especially from schoolchildren, on how the territory can adapt to the information age.

Even though Kao acknowledges that he helped make the Internet possible - "You could argue that [optical fiber] is the root of all things that allowed the Internet boom to happen" - he himself does not burn hours online. "Surfing the Web is time-consuming," he explains. The scientist does not even sound convinced that the Internet is an entirely good thing. "When information is infinite, individual pieces of information are worth nothing," he says. But infinite information itself - to which Kao contributed immensely- is undoubtedly a tremendously valuable cornerstone of our wired future.

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