Sir Charles Kuen Kao: In Memoriam

Sir Charles Kuen Kao

It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Prof Sir Charles Kuen Kao, Nobel Prize laureate 2009 and Marconi Fellow 1985. Charles passed away on the morning of Sunday 23rd September. He had suffered from debilitating Alzheimer’s disease for many years and this had taken a toll on his once sharp mind.

Charles (Charlie to his friends) became known as the “father of fibre optical communications” for his seminal work proposing optical fibres as the data conduits of the future. This was a radical and almost unbelievable concept at the time because the losses in fibres were large and precluded transmission beyond a few metres. Nonetheless, his work laid the foundations of today’s global internet with hundreds of millions of optical fibres criss-crossing the earth today and growing rapidly.

Charlie’s pioneering research was conducted at STL, Harlow, UK. His 1966 paper on the theory and practice of optical fibres for communications applications was ground-breaking in its field. With remarkable prescience, he identified silica as the communications material of choice and even managed to measure its losses in a 10cm chunk and showed them to be low enough for telecoms.

In the early days of the internet, Charlie was known for his passion and advocacy for optical fibres as the medium for future networks. He faced down the numerous skeptics with good nature and this served him well in later life as Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

I am proud to have counted Charlie and his wife Gwen as friends. He may no longer be with us, but his work will live on forever as possibly the greatest single invention in telecommunications, alongside that of wireless by Guillermo Marconi.

Prof Sir David N Payne
Emeritus Chairman
Marconi Society

Two obituaries

South China Morning Post

Quebec Post

And some older links

Richard Epworth’s web sites:

IEEE Spectrum, 2016, by Jeff Hecht: