Obituary: Charles Kao, inventor of optical fibre telecoms

25 September 2018 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Charles Kuen Kao, Nobel laureate for his invention of optical fibres for telecoms and the creator of today’s industry, has died.

Kao was born 84 years ago in Zhangyan near Shanghai. He went to school in Hong Kong and came to London to finish secondary school and study electronics at what was then Woolwich Polytechnic but is now Greenwich University.

He crossed the River Thames to work at the subsea cable factory of Standard Telephones & Cables (STC), in North Woolwich, owned by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), then a significant equipment company in the telecoms industry.

He carried out his work on the laser transmission of information down fibres of glass at STC’s labs, Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow in the east of England – long closed and now the site of a data centre, the Kao Data Campus. At the same time he worked on his PhD at University College London.

He stayed with the ITT group until 1987, by when he was its director of corporate research, when the Chinese University of Hong Kong appointed him as its president. At the same time ITT was moving out of the business, selling some operations to Alcatel of France, while others went to Nortel of Canada.   

In 2009 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named him as joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, following people such as Albert Einstein, Marie Skłodowska Curie and  Guglielmo Marconi.

By then his dementia was advanced and his wife Gwen read his Nobel address. His prize money, after US taxes, went to fund his care – and in 2010 Charles and Gwen Kao founded the Charles K Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease to raise public awareness about the disease and provide support for patients. He died in a hospice in Hong Kong on Sunday.