Narinder Kapany: Unsung hero who coined the term “fiber optic” and touched billions of lives

Fiber Optic – Say the words and people think about high speed internet cables. The more experienced might also know that it is the science of light transmission through flexible fiber. But very few would have even the vague idea that the man who coined the term “optical fiber” was born and raised in India.

Fewer still realize that Narinder Singh Kapany’s contributions find application in the lives of billions of people on this planet, in ways large and small.

Kapany, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, died in the United States last month, a pioneer in the field of optical fibers, a model for optical engineers but an unknown hero, unknown to so many whose lives he touched with his innovations. Kapany, 94, died peacefully in Redwood City, California, a world away from Moga in the Punjab where he was born and the hill town of Dehradun where he grew up. He graduated in 1948 from University of Agra, later receiving the doctorate from Imperial College London in 1955.

The broad applications of the field that revolutionized the Internet age stand on the shoulders of Kapany who demonstrated that light transmission is possible with flexible fiber bundles.

Credited for coining the term “fiber optic,” Kapany was a true visionary in his field who earned over 100 patents, scientists say. His fundamental research in optical fiber, laser and solar energy has found applications in biomedical tools, defense, communications and pollution monitoring. Inspiration struck early.

“When I was a high school student in Dehradun, in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, I thought that light didn’t have to travel in a straight line, that it could be bent. I took the idea to college, “Indian physicist Shivanand Kanavi quoted Kapany in his 2003 book” Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology”Kanavi is among several scientists who believe that Kapany’s contribution may have gone unnoticed at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which grants the Nobel Prize.

While the Chinese scientist Charles K Kao was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 “for groundbreaking achievements in light transmission in optical communication fibers”, it was Kapany who first successfully demonstrated that light it can be transmitted through bent glass fibers, Kanavi said.

In his distinguished career as a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, Kapany has written four books on fiber optics and entrepreneurship. In 1999, Fortune named him one of seven “Unsung Heroes” in the “Businessmen of the Century” issue. The first breakthrough came in 1953 when Kapany, along with his PhD guide Harold Horace Hopkins of Imperial College London, became the first to successfully transmit high-quality images through fiber bundles. With Hopkins, Kapany carefully assembled 10,000 to 20,000 fiber bundles, each 1/1000 inch in diameter, as thin as a single strand of medium human hair, and showed light guidance and imaging through a fiber. 75 cm long.

The duo published the results in the journal Nature on January 2, 1954, and never looked back since.

Following this pioneering feat, in 1960 he invented the term “optical fiber” in a famous article for Scientific American. “If light is directed towards one end of a glass fiber, it will emerge at the other end. Bundles of such fibers they can be used to lead images on a winding path and to transform them in various ways, ”wrote Kapany, describing the potential applications of the field.

Kapany realized that bundles of thin glass fibers could bend more easily. “Initially my main interest was to use them in medical instruments to look inside the human body. The vast potential of optical fibers did not occur to me until 1955. It was then that I coined the term optical fiber.” he told Kanavi, who is an adjunct lecturer at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. The principle behind optical fiber technology is the concept of total internal reflection in which light, when radiated through a glass plate at specific angles, reflects it completely. Indian Institute of Technology Professor Deepa Venkitesh explained that optical fiber is nothing more than a thin silica glass drawn to miles in length.

“Now, if you throw light into this fiber correctly, the light bounces off the interface multiple times and is trapped in the fiber, propagating to the end of the fiber,” the fiber optic researcher told PTI.

He said the importance of optical fiber has grown in this age of work from home.

“The backbone that enables high-speed connectivity in front-end mobile devices is actually the huge fiber-optic communications network that spans the world,” Venkitesh said. “Kapany’s key contributions are the demonstration of a system that uses optical fibers for the purpose of transmitting an image over a reasonable distance and the coining of the term optical fiber and a kind of presentation of the field to a wider audience through an article on Scientific American, “added VR Supradeepa, associate professor, Center for Nano Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. He said it’s hard to find areas that haven’t been affected by advances in fiber optic communication.

“Any application involving the Internet and similar computer networks is based on fiber optic communication. The field has come a long way since Dr. Kapany’s first demonstrations. From his demonstrations of the first static fiber optic link over a fiber bundle, we now have multi terabit communications (1 trillion bits) per second on a single fiber strand, “added the IISc scientist.

Science writer Jeff Hecht noted in his book “City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics” that Kapany was the lead author of 46 scientific articles and co-author of 10 others in the years between 1955 and 1965. “This represented a staggering 30 percent of all fiber optic papers published in those years, including medical care reports, ”he said.

After migrating to the United States, Kapany worked first at Rochester University, then at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

In 1961 he founded Optics Technology Inc. which successfully made it public in 1967, the first Indian Sikh to go public with a company in Silicon Valley.

He created the Sikh Foundation in 1967, which pioneered the exhibition of Sikh arts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and the Rubin Museum in New York.

Kapany, who is survived by his wife Satinder Kaur, two sons and four grandchildren, witnessed the horrors of the division of the subcontinent during his years in Dehradun.

Sharing his first-hand accounts with the 1947 Partition Archive, a nonprofit organization, he recalled a crowd who had come to their home asking him to deliver a Muslim maid. “They shouted and said: ‘You have a Muslim living here, give it to us,'” he recalled in his interview with the organization. But he was ready to use his double-barreled pistol to protect the maid.

“I think there were some wise people who found that I really meant it. I wouldn’t let anyone hurt him,” he said.

Kapany’s latest book, a memoir called “The Man Who Bent Light,” is expected to be available in the spring of this year.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)

News Highlights:

  • But very few might even have the feeling that the man who coined the term fiber optic was born and studied in India. Fewer still realize that Narinder Singh Kapany’s contributions find application in the lives of billions of people on this planet, in great ways Kapany, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, died in the United States last month, a pioneer in the field of optical fibers, a model for optical engineers but an unknown hero, to so many of whom he touched life with his innovations.
  • Narinder Kapany: Unsung hero who coined the term “fiber optic” and touched billions of lives