Remembering the Father of Fibre Optics
True scientific revelations are mostly made by those people who choose to question what is considered as gospel by others. When a physics professor told a young Narinder S. Kapany that light always travels in straight lines, he thought to himself – ‘it must bend sometimes’. And it was this single curiosity which became his passion for life and paved the way for scientific breakthroughs.
Dr Narinder S Kapany was born in Moga, Punjab on 31st October 1926, into a Sikh family. He continued to be proud of his origin and religion throughout his life. He maintained a strong Sikh identity; endowing chairs in Sikh studies at various California Universities and exhibiting and collecting Sikh art.
Dr Kapany studied at Agra University before getting a PhD degree in optics from Imperial College London in 1952. He worked with Professor Hopkins as a research intern during his time there. He successfully bundled thousands of extremely thin optical fibres, connecting them, to transmit high-quality images. During his time in London, he also got to quench his thirst for determining if he could, in actuality, bend light.
Dr Kapany had tried to bend light using right-angled prisms but Professor Hopkins suggested glass cylinders. Hence, he tried to use a bundle of thin glass fibres which could be bent easily and coined the term fibre optics. The total internal reflection needed to be effective enough, such that the light is reflected entirely without being weakened. To bend light, he needed the reflecting material on the inside to do this. Therefore, he needed a non-absorbent piece of glass that carries light inside a glass strand compliant with the concept of total internal reflection to use light for communication.
To achieve this, Dr Kapany went to the Pilkington Glass company to get optical quality glass and draw fibre out of it. However, the company sent the fibre of green glass instead of optical glass for months due to which Dr Kapany was unsuccessful.
Finally, Dr Kapany cut the bundle to short lengths and used a bright carbon arc source. With the green glass failing, he coated the material which prevented leakages and protected the core. These results were finally published in The Nature (a science journal) with Professor Hopkins.
Unfortunately, due to disagreements between Professor Hopkins and Dr Kapany about each one’s contribution to the paper that they published, their relationship came to an end. However, Dr Kapany did push fibre optics onto the government and corporate research budgets to ensure that their discovery did not go uncultivated. Today’s quotidian operations such as calling or watching television wouldn’t have been possible without the development of this technology.
The Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 went to Charles Kao who also did extraordinary work in fibre optics. Many showed dissent that Dr Kapany was not given the award and felt he was more worthy of the honour.
After marrying Satinder Kaur, who also studied in London, Dr Kapany moved to the United States with his wife. There he was offered a job at the University of Rochester. After two years, he began teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He continued researching and inventing new technologies in fibre-optics communication, solar energy, pollution monitoring, lasers, biomedical instrumentation, etc.
He later moved to California and founded Optics Technology, a company primarily built on his research in that field. After falling out with a business executive and due to the poor turnover of his company, Dr Kapany soon left. He then started Kaptron, a fibre optics equipment company in 1973 and sold it to AMP Incorporated. He also founded K2 Optronics. His fondness for teaching continued, as in later years he also taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dr Kapany died at the age of 94 on December 3rd, 2020 but his immense scientific contributions will continue to be remembered just as he will.
His accomplishments never seem to come to an end. He has over a hundred patents, and between 1955 and 1965 he published 56 scientific papers – thirty per cent of all research papers published during that decade in his field. Furthermore, he was the author of the first book on fibre optics and the chief executive of one of the first venture capital-funded companies in Silicon Valley. Dr Kapany has also received many awards such as The Excellence 2000 Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce. In 1998, he received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman bestowed by the Indian Government and was even recognised as one of the seven “Unsung Heroes” by Fortune in their “Businessmen of the Century” issue.
Dr Kapany’s pioneering work in fibre optics is the reason we’re using high-speed internet and for that, we all will be forever grateful.