Sir Charles Kuen Kao, 1933-2018

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Anna.mckie@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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.

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