Sir Charles Kuen Kao, 1933-2018
An engineer who pioneered the development of fibre optics, paving the way for the creation of the internet, has died.
Charles Kuen Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933. He graduated from St Joseph’s College in Hong Kong in 1953, before heading to the UK, where he studied electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich). In 1957 he began studying for his PhD in the same subject at UCL, starting experiments that would eventually demonstrate how strands of glass fibres can transmit almost unlimited amounts of digitised data on pulses of laser light.
In 1966, he presented a paper in London that first proposed the use of glass fibres for optical communication. His work enabled the use of fibre optics in telecommunication and would pave the way for the creation of the internet, garnering him nicknames such as the “father of fibre optics” and the “grandfather of broadband”.
His research went on to produce 29 patented discoveries, helping to develop the components and systems that made the internet revolution possible.
“Nobody bought my ideas at first,” he later recalled, but he still persisted. “When you are young, you are fervent about the things you believe in,” he explained.
He joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1970, heading its new department of electronics – later renamed the department of electronic engineering – and was appointed its first professor of electronics. He became the university’s third vice-chancellor in 1987, retaining the post until his retirement in 1996. He was then appointed an honorary professor of engineering.
In 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work, sharing it with Willard Boyle and George Smith, and was knighted the following year. Other prizes he received include the Prince Philip Medal from the Royal Society of Engineering, Hong Kong’s prestigious Grand Bauhinia Medal and the Faraday Medal.
Rocky Tuan, the current vice-chancellor of CUHK, said Professor Kao was a “brilliant scholar and visionary leader in higher education” who “spearheaded the advancement of the university in its formative years”.
In 2010 he and his wife, Gwen Kao, founded the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease, which he suffered from, with the aim of raising awareness about Alzheimer’s and promoting care for those with the disease in Hong Kong.
Sir Charles died at Bradbury Hospice in Hong Kong on 23 September at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife and two children.