Professor Charles K. Kao played a leading role in the early stage of engineering and commercial realization of optical communication. He stated that the impurity of glass material is the main cause for the dramatic decay of light transmission inside glass fiber, rather than fundamental physical effects such as scattering as many physicists thought at that time, and such impurity could be removed. This led to a worldwide study and production of high-purity glass fibers. When he first proposed that such glass fiber could be used for long-distance information transfer and replace copper wires which were used for telecommunication during that era, his ideas were widely disbelieved; later people realized that Professor Charles K. Kao's ideas revolutionized the whole communication technology and industry.
Interesting story of childhood
‘When I was playing with chemistry, long before I was really old enough to really play with those things, so I got to know things like an understanding that if you put an oxidation agent and mix it with something that is easily inflammable, that if you mix the two, you are going to make a brighter spark, which I did. The actual things that I used were so lethal. I put red phosphorus powder and mixed it with potassium chlorate, which is an oxidation agent, and we’d touch it and it would go phooom and it explodes. A young boy to be playing with these things is really bad! I actually wrote about this. I made mud balls and put water in with those two ingredients and put it into the center of the mud ball and let it dry. and when you’d throw it, it explodes.’
What is Engineer
‘I’m an engineer, so my real purpose is something that is useful, and it is interesting to extrapolate how improvement can be made and if it is made; and if it is made, how it important it is to serve mankind. Communication, at this moment of my life, I still feel that it is not the invention of something that is important. It is how we can utilize that then to improve life that is important. Unfortunately, these days, we are contaminated by the use of the competitive forces to say, “You must say, ‘I did something better than the other,’ so the advertising people will generate things that boosts sucking up to possibly beyond what one should claim. In some ways I feel that for instance we now can use computers to do very, very many things. You can do many, many things that are weird and wonderful, but to what extent we need them is still not clear. The bubble burst recently of technology, particularly the IT bubble, was overloaded, so it has collapsed. Obviously it is very important that we push them, but I think the peripheral ways that people look at it and get very excited are based on very thin evidence. And so I think we all should say, “Here are some useful tools. Are they going to be really helpful for us?” And we should question these carefully and use them appropriately. But that is sort of the typical way or engineering way of answering questions.’
Charles Kao, an oral history conducted in 2004
by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.