The Untold Truth Of Charles Kao

If you are reading this article right now, you have a man named Charles K. Kao to thank for it. Kao was an award-winning, world-renowned physicist whose research in electrical engineering could easily be referred to as the most important work of the modern era. Nicknamed the "father of fiber optics," it was Kao's technology that laid the framework for what we all know as the World Wide Web (via CNET).

There's no denying the fact that without the internet serving in the background of our lives as a vital tool, society as we know it would be drastically altered. This would be the reality if Charles Kao hadn't presented the idea of fiber optics. In short, this sophisticated tech can be used to transmit encoded data to a light receiving screen through a single strand of glass no thicker than the average strand of human hair (via NAI). 

Fiber optics is a pivotal component in the kind of data storage and transmission that fuels most modern technological equipment. This means that just about everything you can think of, from laptops and cellphones to medical scanners and military equipment, links back to this one man, Charles Kao. So, who was Charles Kao, and why don't more people know his story?

Charles Kao invented fiber optics

You might not give it much thought, but you are surrounded by Charles Kao's invention just about everywhere you go. When you walk outside, the cables tethered overhead draped over telephone poles are fiber optics. They traverse cities, suburbs, and rural areas. If you look at your internet router, you will find these cables yet again. In fact, fiber optic cables are so commonplace today that they are even buried underground (via the Fiber Optic Association).

Whether Kao's invention is dangling over your head or buzzing under your feet, it is touching your life and the lives of everyone around you. The idea of lightning speed data, which is so often utilized as a marketing tool for internet distributors, derives from the concept of fiber optics itself (via NAI). 

In a groundbreaking scientific proposal, this legendary engineer spoke of "glassy material constructed in a cladded structure with a core diameter" being used to create a revolutionary new medium (via Nature). He'd eventually find a suitable conduit in fused silica, beating out competitors who were also racing to find a way to transport data at lightning speeds (via IEEE Spectrum).

Some people ridiculed his invention

As is the case with many revolutionary ideas, Charles Kao was subjected to a fair share of criticism. According to Royal Society Publishing, the thinker's ideas were "widely ridiculed" when first presented them in the mid 1960s. The idea that laser light could transport information all across the world through a glass so clear and small it would be comparable to human hair seemed ludicrous at that time. Today, it is just reality.

With rival inventors at Bell Labs chomping at the bit (via IEEE Spectrum) and skepticism circling his peer group, Kao showed that true winners are those with endurance and tenacity. It is the people willing to bend the laws of physics, or in this case, the fibers of physics, who eventually cause quiet revolution. 

Interestingly enough, if Kao had prematurely thrown in the towel, those fiber cables we see today would have been replaced with the hollow, clunky tubes being proposed by Bell Labs. Such tubes would have been much more expensive to make and install. Also, they would not have been capable of transmitting data at nearly the speed or distance we need to fuel a global communication system like what we have today on the internet.

Winning a Nobel Prize

Behind every "overnight success" there lies a story of toil. Charles Kao's was no exception. Not only did he have to face a chorus of naysayers and slay tech giants on his path of competition, but he also had to wait more than four decades for this esteemed recognition. Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009, a jaw-dropping 43 years after he invented fiber optics and revolutionized communication across the globe.

According to Britannica, despite the colossal impact his invention went on to have, Kao was not the lone recipient of his Nobel Prize. Rather, he shared it with physicists George E. Smith and Willard Boyle.

He has since been bestowed with many unofficial titles that speak to his contributions in science and communication. Some favorites include "the father of fiber optics" and "the godfather of broadband." As exceptional as all of his scientific accomplishments were, they are not the only mark he left on the world.

A social and political revolution

It might come as no surprise that this innovative physicist known for inventing revolutionary tech was also a bit of a revolutionary at home. Heavy reported that Charles Kao was a proud member of China's somewhat controversial South Society, also known as Nan She. This organization strongly advocates for a revolution propagated by social and political change.

Being a member was a family tradition, and Kao, born native to Shanghai, China, hailed from a background of wealth and influence. So worldly was he, that he held a dual citizenship in both the United States and Great Britain, despite being born abroad.

Even in death, Kao strived for change and development in regard to social issues. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he did what any forward-thinking patient would. He founded a nonprofit corporation called the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease, which still exists to this very day.

A physicist's brain but a poet's soul

Call him what you will, the "father of fiber optics" or the "godfather of broadband," either way, his impact remains unrivaled. Charles K. Kao left the life of this world in 2018 at 84 years of age (via The New York Times). However, the rest of our lives are still very much revolving around his inventions, political positions, and charitable contributions.

Kao was a poet at heart with a love for tragic literary works. How fitting it is that his life unfolded much like a Shakespearean saga full of irony, triumph, and toil. Today, with millions of stock photos available, there isn't a single photograph of this late inventor available for public use. Yet, in many ways, he invented the very internet we use to find these pixelated images. In the end, we are all so busy using Kao's invention that we have forgotten the mind behind the scenes.