Nobel for the cable guy – Charles Kuen Kao
Shanghai-born graduate of Woolwich Poly shares Nobel Prize for Physics
A graduate of the less-than-glamorous Woolwich Polytechnic whose work on fibre-optic cables helped create high-speed broadband access to the internet for millions has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Or, at least, a share in it.
Charles Kuen Kao, now nicknamed 'the master of light', was a student at the down-at-heel east London college in the late 1950s and went on to complete a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of London.
A year later, in 1966, while working for Standard Telephones and Cables in Essex, he discovered that, by removing impurities like iron from fibre-optic cables, light could travel much further than before. Until then, the light would peter out within metres.
He claimed the world was on the threshold of "a new form of communication medium" and his discovery sparked a global race to produce glass fibres with low optical losses. Richard Epworth, a colleague of Dr Kao's at Standard Telephones and Cables, said: "What the wheel did for transport, the optical fibre did for telecommunications."
Professor Kao, now 75, was born in Shanghai and holds dual British and American citizenship. He shares this year's award with American scientists Willard Sterling Boyle and George Smith, from Bell Labs in New Jersey. They were awarded half the prize for inventing the charged-couple device, or CCD, which is today found in everything from the most basic digital cameras to sophisticated surgical instruments.
Prof Kao, a former vice-chancellor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, receives half of the 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000) prize money, while Professors Smith and Boyle will take a quarter each. After hearing he had won, Prof Kao joked that it was his own invention that allowed news of the award to travel so fast.
Woolwich Poly has also moved on since the 1950s. It is now part of the more august-sounding University of Greenwich, which awarded Prof Kao an honorary degree in 2003. Among its other alumni are Michael Goy, who runs the British railways pension scheme, and Campbell Christie, former chairman of Falkirk FC in Scotland. ·
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