The University of Southampton

Nobel Prize winner inspired internet pioneers at Southampton

Published: 6 October 2009

The achievements of this years Physics Nobel Prize winner, Charles Kao, inspired the groundbreaking research at the University of Southampton that fuelled the growth of optical communications.

In 1966 Kao, working at Standard Telecom Laboratories in the UK, speculated that light could be transmitted over long distances via optical glass fibres. With fibre of the purest glass it would be possible to transmit signals over 100 kilometres compared with the 20 meters achieved by the fibres available in the 60’s.

Kao’s discovery inspired researchers at Southampton to begin working on optical fibres - with the aim of making long-distance light communication a practical reality. Our work and that of others around the world, most notably at British Telecom and STL in the UK and Corning Inc and Bell Labs in the USA, produced the low-loss glass fibres that resulted in the explosive growth of optical communications. Optical fibres remain the backbone of global broadband communications today.

Professor David Payne, Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre had the privilege of collaborating with Charles Kao on a number of occasions.

David commented “Charles was an inspiration to me as a young man and I am delighted he has received the highest honour for science for his ground breaking work that has changed the world, shrinking it to no bigger than our living rooms.”

Inspired by Kao, Payne and his team, together with a team at Bell Laboratories, went on to demonstrate the first optical amplifier in the 1980’s, thus fully realising Kao’s dream of unlimited global communications. The Erbium-Doped Fibre Amplifier (EDFA) allowed the 100km limit to be overcome, making huge amounts of bandwidth available at low cost over very long distances.

Kao’s research and the subsequent research at Southampton were major pre-requisites for the formation of the Internet as we know it. Today researchers at the Optoelectronics Research Centre are looking into new ways to meet the consumer demands for higher speed connections with increased bandwidth.


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