Fiber optics pioneer and Nobel laureate Charles Kao dies at 84

September 24, 2018 13:27
Charles Kao is seen in this file photo from 2010 after he won the Nobel Prize for Physics the previous year. Tributes have poured in for the fiber optics pioneer who breathed his last in Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: HKEJ

Charles Kao Kuen, a former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, has died at the age of 84 after battling Alzheimer's for more than a decade.

Kao, who won global acclaim for his work on the development and use of fiber optics, passed away at Bradbury Hospice in Sha Tin shortly before noon on Sunday.

According to Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, who stepped down as vice-chancellor of the Chinese University last year, Kao had become infected with pneumonia and had been unable to eat for some days before he breathed his last, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Kao, who was known as the “father of fiber optics" for his pioneering research and development work in the field, had served as vice-chancellor of CUHK between 1987 and 1996.

Born in Shanghai in 1933, Kao moved to Taiwan with his family when he was young before the family later moved again, to Hong Kong, in 1948.

After completing his secondary education at St. Joseph's College in 1952, he went to study in the United Kingdom and obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1957, and then received his PhD in electrical engineering in 1965 from University College London.

His first job was as an engineer at Standard Telephones & Cables, a British subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph Co (ITT) in 1957.

After years of hard work, Kao published a paper in 1966 and suggested use of glass fiber as the conductor of optic communication, paving the way for the subsequent invention of optic fiber.

In 2009, Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for "groundbreaking achievements" involving "the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication”.

Kao returned to Hong Kong in 1970 and joined as Reader and Chair of the then new Department of Electronics, which was later renamed as the Department of Electronic Engineering, at CUHK in 1970. He was also appointed as the first Professor of Electronics.

He went to work for ITT in the United States in 1974 before returning to Hong Kong in 1987 to assume the post of CUHK vice-chancellor.

Sung praised Kao for making great contributions to the university, especially the development of its faculty of engineering. The professor pointed out that the greatest thing about Kao was he had never intended to turn his invention into something that he could have profited from.

After learning of Kao’s death, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor extended her condolences to the family of the fiber optics pioneer, who had been awarded Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2010.

Expressing deep sorrow over the passing, Lam noted in a statement that Kao was a pioneer in the development and use of fiber optics which had revolutionized the modern communication technology.

Kao made tremendous contribution to Hong Kong, the world and mankind, Hong Kong's top leader said, adding: "Professor Kao was not only an outstanding scientist but also a committed educator."

"Visionary with regard to the development of scientific research in Hong Kong, he played a key role in the establishment of the Hong Kong Science Park, laying a solid foundation for the present development of innovation and technology in the city,” Lam said.

Kao’s wife, meanwhile, said in a statement that the Charles K Kao Foundation, established by the couple in 2010, will continue providing support for those with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

Kao had battled Alzheimer's, a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, following a diagnosis in 2002.

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Charles Kao Kuen met his wife Gwen Kao while he was working at Standard Telephones & Cables in the United Kingdom. They married in 1959. Photo: Internet