Charles Kuen Kao (1933-)

Charles Kuen Kao is a pioneer in the development of fibre optics for use in telecommunications.

Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933. His father, a judge in the Court for International Law, had received an excellent education in both China and the United States. Kao was tutored at home with his brother before attending school in Shanghai. In the aftermath of Japanese invasion, Kao’s family fled to Hong Kong, where he enrolled at St Joseph’s College. Graduating with a perfect academic record, Kao was eligible to apply to the University of Hong Kong. However, enduring the disruption and disarray caused by the war persuaded Kao to study in Britain. He thus became an undergraduate in electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic.

On completing his degree, Kao joined Standard Telephones and Cables, a British subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph Co. (ITT) in North Woolwich. As a trainee, Kao showed particular promise in the field of microwave research. He was offered the opportunity to transfer to Standard Telecommunications Laboratories (STL) in Harlow. At STL, Kao and his co-workers conducted pioneering work on fibre optics and their potential as a telecommunications medium. As well as conducting and developing scientific research, including making precise measurements of the attenuation of light in glass and other materials, Kao played a leading role in the engineering and commercial realisation of optical communication.

In 1970 Kao joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he initiated new programmes of study in electronics for both undergraduates and graduates. By the 1980s optical fibres were being laid across the world in vast quantities, and the industry had evolved into a giant. To maintain the pace of research and development within this field, ITT was keen to employ Kao as its first Executive Scientist.

Later in his career, alongside prestigious academic posts, for example at Imperial College London, Kao directed and founded a number of telecommunications companies. In 2009 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the study of the transmission of light in optical fibres and for fibre communication.