Narinder Singh Kapany – The Unsung Hero, Father of Fibre Optics

Father of Fiber Optics

“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones.”

George R.R. Martin

We have all heard about optical fibers, the backbone of optical data transmission that carries the internet around the world. Today, we cannot imagine a world without it. Yet, how many of us know about Narinder Singh Kapany, the man behind it all? The father of fiber optics.

His Life

Narinder Singh Kapany was an Indian- American physicist. He was born on 31 October 1926 in Moga, Punjab in India (then of course it was part of the British Empire). He did his schooling in Dehradun, a small town in the Himalayan region of the country and went on to graduate from Agra University.

While still at school, his keen, enquiring mind began questioning his teacher’s statement – ‘Light always travels in a straight line.’

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He began to wonder if he could bend light and make it travel through bent pipes. Even when he served as an Indian Ordnance Factories Service officer, he worked on equipments where he used mirrors to bend light. The question still gnawed at his mind and set him off on a journey which would make the entire world a better place.

He went to Imperial College London in 1952 to work on his PhD in optics. It was at Imperial College where he worked with Harold Hopkins, an English physicist, that he found the answer to his childhood question and realised that light can indeed be bent when it is transmitted through glass fibers.

Did you know that the term ‘fibre optics’ was coined by Kapany in an article in Scientific American in 1960?

The next problem was that naked glass, did not guide light well and there were a lot of leakages. To transmit an image he needed a bundle of fibers containing several hundred strands, but contact between adjacent fibers led to loss of image resolution.  The solution was cladding. The almost-simultaneous development of optical cladding by Dutch scientist Bram van Heel, helped jumpstart the new field of fiber optics.

Why are Optical Fibers so Important?

Optical fibers are thin tubular glass fibers (thinner than human hair!), but they are flexible and transparent. The advantage over other wires, like copper wires for example, is that while copper wires do transmit signals, there is a huge loss of intensity as the signals travel over long distances. In optical fibers, however, there is minimal loss of signal intensity, while it travels at a rate that is near the speed of light!

Optical Fibers
pic credit: http://www.sciencestockphotos.com

Fiber Optics has not only changed the field of communication but also led to the evolution and development of such advanced medical devices as the gastroscope, endoscope and bronchoscope.

Kapany was also one of the first scientists to design a fibre-optics-based scheme for optical oximetry of blood, which measures the level of oxygen saturation in blood via its optical absorption characteristics.

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Recognition

Dr Kapany has published over 100 scientific papers, 4 books and has over 120 patents to his credit.

He died at the age of 94 in December 2020. He was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award in 2021. He was also awarded the ‘Excellence 2000’ Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Fortune named him one of seven ‘Unsung Heroes of the 20th century’ for his Nobel Prize-deserving invention.

Dr Kapany is truly one of the unsung heroes whose work changed the course of history for human civilization.

“The world is glacial when it comes to recognising talent.”

Stewart Stafford

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