In 1966, a Chinese-born electrical engineer and physicist named Charles K. Kao co-authored a proposal that would revolutionize global communications and lay the groundwork for the internet we know today.
Along with collaborator George Hockham, Kao proposed using thin glass fibers to transmit data across long distances, replacing the bulky copper wires then in use in telecommunications. Though initially rejected, his proposal would transform communications technology and the industry as a whole.
To highlight Kao’s contribution to technology, Google will honor the engineer on Thursday with a Doodle celebrating his 88th birthday. The animated Doodle depicts Kao, widely known as “the father of fiber optics,” using a green fiber laser to transmit data from one end of the Doodle to the other.
Born in Shanghai on Nov. 4, 1933, Kao studied English, French and the Chinese classics before moving to England to study electrical engineering. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Kao went to work at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, England, while he was working toward a doctorate in electrical engineering.
At the time, glass fibers could carry light pulses for telephone signals only 20 meters (65 feet) before nearly all the light dissipated. But Kao’s 1966 landmark paper Dielectric-Fiber Surface Waveguides for Optical Frequencies suggested it would be possible to transmit light signals more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) across a fiber of ultrapure glass.
Kao and Hockham noted in their conclusion that “a fiber of glassy material” of a specific construction “represents a possible practical optical waveguide with important potential as a new form of communication medium.”
Four years later, inspired by Kao’s vision, a group of researchers produced the first ultrapure fiber.
Kao’s landmark research allowed the rapid expansion of broadband communications through the hundreds of millions of miles of fiber optic cable that deliver massive amounts of data around the globe in a split second. For his work, Kao would share the joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.
Kao would go on to oversee implementation of fiber optic networks worldwide and focus on education in the 1980s, serving as vice chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and founding Hong Kong’s Independent Schools Foundation.
Kao died in 2018 at the age of 84.