Charles K. Kao

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Charles K.Kao

Charles K. Kao cropped 2.jpg
Charles K. Kao receiving an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2004
Charles Kuen Kao

(1933-11-04)4 November 1933
Died23 September 2018(2018-09-23) (aged 84)
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom[1]
United States
Alma materUniversity College London[2] (PhD 1965, issued by University of London[1])
Woolwich Polytechnic (BSc 1957, issued by University of London[citation needed])
Known forFibre optics
Fibre-optic communication
Scientific career
InstitutionsChinese University of Hong Kong
Standard Telephones and Cables
ITT Corporation
Yale University
Doctoral advisorHarold Barlow
Charles K. Kao
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese高锟

Sir Charles Kuen Kao GBM KBE FRS FREng[6][7][8][9][10] (4 November 1933 – 23 September 2018) was an electrical engineer and physicist who pioneered the development and use of fibre optics in telecommunications. In the 1960s, Kao created various methods to combine glass fibres with lasers in order to transmit digital data, which laid the groundwork for the evolution of the Internet.

Born in Shanghai, Kao grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong before moving to London to study electrical engineering. In the 1960s he worked at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, the research centre of Standard Telephones and Cables in Harlow, and it was here in 1966 that he laid the groundwork for fibre optics in communication.[11] Known as the "Godfather of Broadband",[12] the "Father of Fiber Optics",[13][14][15][16][17] and the "Father of Fiber Optic Communications",[18][19] Kao was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for "groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication".[20] In 2010 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to fibre optic communications”.[21]

A permanent resident of Hong Kong[22] Kao held citizenships in the United Kingdom and the United States.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Charles Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933,[23]:1 and his ancestral home is in nearby Jinshan,[23]:13 at that time a separate administrative area.[24][25] He studied Chinese classics at home with his brother, under a tutor.[5][23]:41 He also studied English and French at the Shanghai World School (上海世界學校) in the Shanghai French Concession[26] which was founded by a number of progressive Chinese educators including Cai Yuanpei.[27]

Kao's family moved to Taiwan and then British Hong Kong in 1948[23]:1[28] where he completed his secondary education (Hong Kong School Certificate Examination, a predecessor of HKCEE[29])[30] at St. Joseph's College in 1952. He did his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich),[31] obtaining his Bachelor of Engineering degree.[23]:1[non-primary source needed]

He then pursued research and received his PhD in electrical engineering in 1965 from University of London, under Professor Harold Barlow of University College London as an external student while working at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow, England, the research centre of Standard Telephones and Cables.[2] It is there that Kao did his first groundbreaking work as an engineer and researcher working alongside George Hockham under the supervision of Alec Reeves.[citation needed]

Ancestry and family[edit]

Kao's father Kao Chun-Hsiang [zh] (高君湘)[23]:13 was a lawyer who obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School in 1925.[32] He was a professor at Soochow University (then in Shanghai) Comparative Law School of China.[33][34]

His grandfather Gao Xie was a scholar, poet, artist,[5] and a leading figure of the South Society during the late Qing Dynasty.[35] Several writers including Gao Xu, Yao Guang [zh] (姚光), and Gao Zeng [zh] (高增) were also Gao's close relatives.[citation needed]

His father's cousin was astronomer Kao Ping-tse[5][36] (Kao crater is named after him[37]). Kao's younger brother Timothy Wu Kao (高鋙) is a civil engineer and Professor Emeritus at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His research is in hydrodynamics.[38]

Kao met his future wife Gwen May-Wan Kao (née Wong; 黃美芸) in London after graduation, when they worked together as engineers at Standard Telephones and Cables.[23]:23[39][unreliable source?] She is British Chinese.[23]:17 They were married in 1959 in London,[23]:15–17[40] and had a son and a daughter,[40] both of whom reside and work in Silicon Valley, California.[12][39][41][unreliable source?] According to Kao's autobiography, Kao was a Catholic who attended Catholic Church while his wife attended Anglican Communion.[23]:14–15

Academic career[edit]

Fibre optics and communications[edit]

A bundle of silica glass fibres for optical communication, which are the de facto worldwide standard. Kao also first publicly suggested that silica glass of high purity is an ideal material for long range optical communication.[42]

In the 1960s at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) based in Harlow, Essex, England, Kao and his co-workers did their pioneering work in the realisation of fibre optics as a telecommunications medium, by demonstrating that the high-loss of existing fibre optics arose from impurities in the glass, rather than from an underlying problem with the technology itself.[43]

In 1963, when Kao first joined the optical communications research team he made notes summarising the background[44] situation and available technology at the time, and identifying the key individuals[44] involved. Initially Kao worked in the team of Antoni E. Karbowiak (Toni Karbowiak), who was working under Alec Reeves to study optical waveguides for communications. Kao's task was to investigate fibre attenuation, for which he collected samples from different fibre manufacturers and also investigated the properties of bulk glasses carefully. Kao's study primarily convinced himself that the impurities in material caused the high light losses of those fibres.[45] Later that year, Kao was appointed head of the electro-optics research group at STL.[46] He took over the optical communication program of STL in December 1964, because his supervisor, Karbowiak, left to take the Chair in Communications in the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, Australia.[47]

Although Kao succeeded Karbowiak as manager of optical communications research, he immediately decided to abandon Karbowiak's plan (thin-film waveguide) and overall change research direction with his colleague George Hockham.[45][47] They not only considered optical physics but also the material properties. The results were first presented by Kao to the IEE in January 1966 in London, and further published in July with George Hockham (1964–1965 worked with Kao).[48][a] This study first theorized and proposed to use glass fibres to implement optical communication, the ideas (especially structural features and materials) described are largely the basis of today's optical fibre communications.[citation needed]

"What Kao did in Harlow transformed the world and provided a backbone for the internet. He was the father of fibre optics."

—Harlow Museum's David Devine on Kao’s pioneering work in fibre optics at STC’s Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow.[49]

In 1965,[46][50][b] Kao with Hockham concluded that the fundamental limitation for glass light attenuation is below 20 dB/km (decibels per kilometer, is a measure of the attenuation of a signal over a distance), which is a key threshold value for optical communications.[51] However, at the time of this determination, optical fibres commonly exhibited light loss as high as 1,000 dB/km and even more. This conclusion opened the intense race to find low-loss materials and suitable fibres for reaching such criteria.[citation needed]

Kao, together with his new team (members including T. W. Davies, M. W. Jones, and C. R. Wright), pursued this goal by testing various materials. They precisely measured the attenuation of light with different wavelengths in glasses and other materials. During this period, Kao pointed out that the high purity of fused silica (SiO2) made it an ideal candidate for optical communication. Kao also stated that the impurity of glass material is the main cause for the dramatic decay of light transmission inside glass fibre, rather than fundamental physical effects such as scattering as many physicists thought at that time, and such impurity could be removed. This led to a worldwide study and production of high-purity glass fibres.[52] When Kao first proposed that such glass fibre could be used for long-distance information transfer and could replace copper wires which were used for telecommunication during that era, his ideas were widely disbelieved; later people realized that Kao's ideas revolutionized the whole communication technology and industry.[53]

He also played a leading role in the early stage of engineering and commercial realization of optical communication.[54] In spring 1966, Kao traveled to the U.S. but failed to interest Bell Labs, which was a competitor of STL in communication technology at that time.[55] He subsequently traveled to Japan and gained support.[55] Kao visited many glass and polymer factories, discussed with various people including engineers, scientists, businessmen about the techniques and improvement of glass fiber manufacture. In 1969, Kao with M. W. Jones measured the intrinsic loss of bulk-fused silica at 4 dB/km, which is the first evidence of ultra-transparent glass. Bell Labs started considering fibre optics seriously.[55]

Kao developed important techniques and configurations for glass fibre waveguides, and contributed to the development of different fibre types and system devices which met both civil and military[c] application requirements, and peripheral supporting systems for optical fiber communication.[54] In mid-1970s, he did seminal work on glass fiber fatigue strength.[54] When named the first ITT Executive Scientist, Kao launched the "Terabit Technology" program in addressing the high frequency limits of signal processing, so Kao is also known as the "Father of the Terabit Technology Concept".[54][56] Kao has published more than 100 papers and was granted over 30 patents,[54] including the water-resistant high-strength fibers (with M. S. Maklad).[57]

At an early stage of developing optic fibres, Kao already strongly preferred single mode for long-distance optical communication, instead of using multi-mode systems. His vision later was followed and now is applied almost exclusively.[52][58] Kao was also a visionary of modern submarine communications cables and largely promoted this idea. He predicted in 1983 that world's seas would be littered with fibre optics, five years ahead of the time that such a trans-oceanic fibre-optic cable first became serviceable.[59]

Ali Javan's introduction of a steady helium–neon laser and Kao's discovery of fibre light-loss properties now are recognized as the two essential milestones for the development of fiber-optic communications.[47]

Later work[edit]

Kao joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1970 to found the Department of Electronics, which later became the Department of Electronic Engineering. During this period, Kao was the reader and then the chair Professor of Electronics at CUHK; he built up both undergraduate and graduate study programmes of electronics and oversaw the graduation of his first students. Under his leadership, the School of Education and other new research institutes were established. He returned to ITT Corporation in 1974 (the parent corporation of STC at that time) in the United States and worked in Roanoke, Virginia, first as Chief Scientist and later as Director of Engineering. In 1982, he became the first ITT Executive Scientist and was stationed mainly at the Advanced Technology Center in Connecticut.[16] While there, he served as an adjunct professor and Fellow of Trumbull College at Yale University. In 1985, Kao spent one year in West Germany, at the SEL Research Centre. In 1986, Kao was the Corporate Director of Research at ITT.

He was one of the earliest to study the environmental effects of land reclamation in Hong Kong, and presented one of his first related studies at the conference of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) in Edinburgh in 1972.[60]

Kao was the vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1987 to 1996.[61] From 1991, Kao was an Independent Non-Executive Director and a member of the Audit Committee of the Varitronix International Limited in Hong Kong.[62][63] From 1993 to 1994, he was the President of the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning (ASAIHL).[64] In 1996, Kao donated to Yale University, and the Charles Kao Fund Research Grants was established to support Yale's studies, research and creative projects in Asia.[65] The fund currently is managed by Yale University Councils on East Asian and Southeast Asian Studies.[66] After his retirement from CUHK in 1996, Kao spent his six-month sabbatical leave at the Imperial College London Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering; from 1997 to 2002, he also served as visiting professor in the same department.[67]

Kao was chairman and member of the Energy Advisory Committee (EAC) of Hong Kong for two years, and retired from the position on July 15, 2000.[68][69] Kao was a Member of the Council of Advisors on Innovation and Technology of Hong Kong, appointed on April 20, 2000.[70] In 2000, Kao co-founded the Independent Schools Foundation Academy, which is located in Cyberport, Hong Kong.[71] He was its founding Chairman in 2000, and stepped down from the Board of the ISF in December 2008.[71] Kao was the keynote speaker at IEEE GLOBECOM 2002 in Taipei, Taiwan.[72] In 2003, Kao was named a Chair Professor by special appointment at the Electronics Institute of the College of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, National Taiwan University.[72] Kao then worked as the chairman and CEO of Transtech Services Ltd., a telecommunication consultancy in Hong Kong. He was the founder, chairman and CEO of ITX Services Limited. From 2003 to January 30, 2009, Kao was an independent non-executive director and member of the audit committee of Next Media.[73][74]

Honours and awards[edit]

Kao received numerous honours and awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physics.[75]


Society and academy recognition[edit]

Honorary degrees[edit]

Alexander Graham Bell, pioneer of telecommunication and an alumnus of University College London (UCL), was awarded the first U.S. patent for telephone in 1876. After 90 years in 1966, Kao and Hockham published their groundbreaking article in fiber-optic communication. Kao is also an alumnus of UCL, and was awarded the prestigious Alexander Graham Bell Medal of IEEE in 1985. Kao was awarded an honorary doctorate by UCL in 2010.


Guglielmo Marconi, pioneer of wireless telecommunication, was awarded half of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 2009, the century anniversary of Marconi's Nobel, Kao was awarded half of the same prize for his pioneer work on optical fibre which has "rewired the world". Kao was also awarded the Marconi Prize in 1985, and is a Fellow of the Marconi Society.

Kao donated most of his prize medals to the Chinese University of Hong Kong.[76]


The landmark auditorium in the Hong Kong Science Park has been named after Kao since December 30, 2009.


Later life and death[edit]

Kao's international travels led him to opine that he belonged to the world instead of any country.[138][139] An open letter published by Kao and his wife in 2010 later clarified that "Charles studied in Hong Kong for his high schooling, he has taught here, he was the Vice-Chancellor of CUHK and retired here too. So he is a Hong Kong belonger."[140]

Pottery making, a traditional Chinese handiwork, was a hobby of Kao's. Kao also enjoyed reading Wuxia novels.[141]

On October 6, 2009, when Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the study of the transmission of light in optical fibres and for fibre communication,[142] he said, "I am absolutely speechless and never expected such an honour".[19][143] Kao's wife Gwen told the press that the prize will primarily be used for Charles's medical expenses,[144] after paying tax to the US government. 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 the patients.

Kao suffered from Alzheimer's disease from early 2004 and had speech difficulty, but had no problem recognising people or addresses.[145] Kao's father also suffered from the same disease. Beginning in 2008, he resided in Mountain View, California, United States, where he moved from Hong Kong in order to live near his children and grandchild.[12]

In 2016, Kao lost the ability to maintain his balance. At the end-stage of his dementia he was cared for by his wife and intended not to be kept alive with life support or have CPR performed on him.[146] Kao died at Bradbury Hospice in Hong Kong on 23 September 2018 at the age of 84.[147][148][149][150]


^ a: Kao's major task was to investigate light-loss properties in materials of optic fibers, and determine whether they could be removed or not. Hockham's was investigating light-loss due to discontinuities and curvature of fibre.
^ b: Some sources show around 1964,[151][152] for example, "By 1964, a critical and theoretical specification was identified by Dr. Charles K. Kao for long-range communication devices, the 10 or 20 dB of light loss per kilometer standard." from Cisco Press.[151]
^ c: In 1980, Kao was awarded the Gold Medal from American Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, "for contribution to the application of optical fiber technology to military communications".[54]
^ d: In the United States National Academy of Engineering Membership Website, Kao's country is indicated as People's Republic of China.[86]
^ e: OFC/NFOEC – Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference[131]


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  • Optical fiber technology; by Charles K. Kao. IEEE Press, New York, USA; 1981.
  • Optical Fiber Technology, II; by Charles K. Kao. IEEE Press, New York, USA; 1981, 343 pages. ISBN 0-471-09169-3 ISBN 978-0-471-09169-1.
  • Optical Fiber Systems: Technology, Design, and Applications; by Charles K. Kao. McGraw-Hill, USA; 1982; 204 pages. ISBN 0-07-033277-0 ISBN 978-0-07-033277-5.
  • Optical fibre (IEE materials & devices series, Volume 6); by Charles K. Kao. Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of IEEE; 1988; University of Michigan; 158 pages. ISBN 0-86341-125-8 ISBN 978-0-86341-125-0
  • A Choice Fulfilled: the Business of High Technology; by Charles K. Kao. The Chinese University Press/ Palgrave Macmillan; 1991, 203 pages. ISBN 962-201-521-2 ISBN 978-962-201-521-0
  • Tackling the Millennium Bug Together: Public Conferences; by Charles K. Kao. Central Policy Unit, Hong Kong; 48 pages, 1998.
  • Technology Road Maps for Hong Kong: a Preliminary Study; by Charles K. Kao. Office of Industrial and Business Development, The Chinese University of Hong Kong; 126 pages, 1990.
  • Nonlinear Photonics: Nonlinearities in Optics, Optoelectronics and Fiber Communications; by Yili Guo, Kin S. Chiang, E. Herbert Li, and Charles K. Kao. The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong; 2002, 600 pages.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Andrew Viterbi
IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal
Succeeded by
Bernard Widrow
Preceded by
Nick Holonyak
Japan Prize
Succeeded by
Takashi Sugimura and
Bruce N. Ames
Preceded by
Yoichiro Nambu,
Makoto Kobayashi, and
Toshihide Maskawa
Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics
with Willard Boyle and George E. Smith

Succeeded by
Andre Geim and
Konstantin Novoselov
Academic offices
Preceded by
Ma Lin
Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Succeeded by
Arthur Li