Narinder Kapany: Unsung hero who coined term ‘fibre optics’ and touched billions of lives

·6-min read

This story was originally sent to subscribers on January 18. PTI is repeating it today to update it with Narinder Singh Kapany being awarded the Padma Vibhushan. New Delhi, Jan 26 (PTI) Fibre optics – say the words and people think of high-speed internet cables. More knowledgeable ones might also know it is the science of transmitting light through flexible fibre. But very few would even have an inkling that the man who coined the term “fibre optics” was born and educated in India.

Fewer still realise that the contributions of Narinder Singh Kapany find application in the lives of billions of people on this planet, in ways big and small.

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

The wide applications of the field that has gone on to revolutionise the internet age stand on the shoulders of Kapany who demonstrated that light transmission is possible with flexible fibre bundles.

Credited with coining the term “fibre optics”, Kapany was a true visionary in his field who earned over 100 patents, say scientists. His seminal research in fibre optics, lasers and solar energy have found applications in bio-medical instruments, defence, communications and pollution-monitoring. Inspiration struck early.

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

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

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

The duo published their results in the journal Nature on January 2, 1954, and there was no looking back after that.

Following this pioneering feat, he came up with the term “fibre optics” in a famous article for Scientific American in 1960. 'If light is directed into one end of a glass fiber, it will emerge at the other end. Bundles of such fibers can be used to conduct images over a tortuous path and to transform them in various ways,' Kapany wrote, describing the potential applications of the field.

Kapany realised that bundles of thin glass fibres could bend more easily. 'Initially my primary interest was to use them in medical instruments for looking inside the human body. The broad potential of optic fibers did not dawn on me till 1955. It was then that I coined the term fibre optics,' he told Kanavi, who is an adjunct faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. The principle behind fibre optic technology is the concept of total internal reflection in which light, when beamed through a glass slab at specific angles, reflects it back completely. Indian Institute of Technology professor Deepa Venkitesh explained that optical fibre is nothing but hair-thin silica glass drawn to kilometres of length.

“Now if you launch light correctly into this fibre, the light bounces multiple times at the interface and is trapped in the fibre, propagating until it reaches the far end of the fiber,' the fibre optics researcher told PTI.

She said the importance of fibre optics has grown in this era of working from home.

“The backbone that enables high-speed connectivity in front end mobile devices is in fact the humongous fibre optic communication network that spans the globe,' Venkitesh said. 'Kapany's key contributions are the demonstration of a system utilising optical fibres for the purpose of transmission of an image over a reasonable distance and the coining of the term fibre optics and sort of introducing the field to a wider audience through an article in the Scientific American,' added V R Supradeepa, associate professor, Centre for Nano Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. He said it is hard to find areas which have not been affected by advances in fibre optic communication.

'Any application which involves the internet and similar computer networks is built upon fibre optic communication. The field has come a long way since the early demonstrations by Dr Kapany. From his demonstrations of the first static optical fiber link over a fiber bundle, we now have multi terabits (1 trillion bits) per second communications over a single fibre strand,' the IISc scientist added.

Science writer Jeff Hecht noted in his book “City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics” that Kapany was the lead author on 46 scientific papers and co-author of 10 more in the years between 1955-65. 'That represented a staggering 30 per cent of all the papers published on fiber optics during those years, including reports on medical treatment,' he said.

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

In 1961, he founded Optics Technology Inc. successfully taking it public in 1967 -- the first Sikh Indian to take a company public in Silicon Valley.

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

Kapany, who is survived by his wife Satinder Kaur, two children and four grandchildren, was witness to the horrors of the partition of the subcontinent during his years in Dehradun.

Sharing his firsthand accounts with the 1947 Partition Archive, a non profit organisation, he recalled a mob turning up at their home and demanding that he hand over a Muslim domestic help.

“They were shouting and said, ‘You have a Muslim living here, give him to us’,” he recalled in his interview with the organisation. But he was prepared to use his double-barrel gun to protect the house help.

'I think there were some wise people there who found that I meant it. I wasn’t going to let anybody hurt him,' he said.

Kapany’s last book, a memoir titled “The Man Who Bent Light”, is expected to be available in spring this year. PTI VIS MIN MIN MIN

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting