“The important thing is to be a man of the world. That’s what I have tried to be… and to a small extent succeeded. But I like to do things for people.”
— Narinder Singh Kapany
Image credit– R. R. Jones
He bent light. Something that his middle school teacher mentioned was impossible. In doing so, Narinder Singh Kapany lit the way for fiber optics and its myriad possibilities – high speed internet connectivity, medical imaging, defense surveillance techniques, superior quality broadcasting, stagecraft, laser lighting decoration, to name a few. The Father of Fiber Optics made it possible to transmit data (sound, light and images) from end to end at high speed and over longer distances with a near-zero loss in content. And all this in the world of 1952.
“He was a pioneer. An enthusiastic promoter of a technology that long seemed more like science fiction than fact.”
— Jeff Hecht, Science Journalist
Born in 1936 in small town Moga in Punjab in British India, Kapany belonged to a simple background. His father worked in the coal industry. His early schooling in Dehradun throws up an interesting story.
“A small Kodak camera gifted by my father egged me to understand what happens inside. My physics teacher’s declaration that ‘light travels only in a straight’ line was the trigger point.”
Determined to understand what transpires between image and its reflection, the young lad who had played enough with the box camera knew that prisms and lens could alter the course of light.
A bachelor’s degree in science was followed by a brief job stint at the Indian Ordinance and Factories Services. Here he learnt how to design and manufacture optical instruments. But his innate interest in research and the much longed-for technical training alongside, led him to pursue an internship in Scotland.
“At that time, I was just looking at learning the trade to set up an optics unit back home.”
However, a chance meeting with Physicist Harold Hopkins (by then, a towering name), exposed Kapany to an entire set of scientists and researchers who, like him, believed that light could bend. In fact, they were already studying ways to transmit light via malleable glass fibers. In 1952, he enrolled for post-graduate studies at Imperial College, London, and persuaded Hopkins to hire him as a research assistant.
Well, simply put, the young Kapany scored where others failed. Through a series of persistent experiments, he was able to channel light through a bundle of glass sheaths. He brought alive Hopkins’ and his own surmise that light at high-speed can indeed bend, be made to circle and even invert when diffused through a material that will not detract from its speed. In short, his efforts led to “fiber which permitted optics.” Years later, this fiber went through evolution and emerged as glass-silica.
His path-breaking experiment involved passing light through a 75-centimetre-long unit of 20,000 fiber (glass) bundles, each thinner than human hair. The revolutionary findings were published in Nature in 1954 sharing fine notes from their experiment.
Later that year, Kapany, presented the paper at a science seminar in Italy. Visiting faculty from American universities took note and “… a placement at the University of Rochester soon followed. One job led to another and instead of heading back to India as was the original plan, I set up my first company in Palo Alto (Silicon Valley) in 1960. The firm went public in 1967 with several corporate acquisitions and joint-ventures in the United States and abroad.” — (April 2011 interview on YouTube).
The modern fiber optic cables are “pipes” that carry emails or social media postings around the world in one-seventh of a second. Information is coded in a beam of light which uses optical technology to pass down the glass or plastic pipe, which in turn is made up of hundreds of glass sheaths. The entire working is based on total internal reflection. When bent through a glass slab at calculated angles, the beam will be mirrored and absorbed in entirety due to the difference in densities of different mediums. The fiber optics is a thinner-than-hair silica glass drawn to lengths.
His relentless research made possible the “internet era.” The common picture of earth meshed in communication wires with technology driving mankind to futuristic goals owes a lot to him. Had his invention not come into being, perhaps, copper cables, signal and Morse codes and radio waves (cellphones) would still have been the faster way to transmit data.
Reel time and real time would have been far apart and a pandemic like Corona would have completely stalled progress. Correspondence, reference or download at the click of a key, tethered to high-speed cables would not have emerged. And the 1800’s scientists Colladon and Tyndall’s principles of internal reflection would perhaps have remained unharnessed to its optimal living potential.
In the medical field, fiber optic technology is used in small, compact instruments that assist physicians in robotic surgeries or internal diagnostics. Defense monitoring systems work on light images coded into electromagnetic pulses and down the fiber optic route to appear on screens located remotely. Aeronautics, oil and gas and automobile industries are all using the fiber optic cable to cater to specific technology at their end. The possibilities are endless and research is on.
To his credit, Kapany has published over 150 scientific papers, written four books on entrepreneurship and optoelectronics and taught at numerous reputable institutions in Illinois and California, including UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz and at Stanford. His inventions awaiting a patent outnumber 100 and this includes in diversified fields such as solar energy, geological study for seismic and wind patterns and for pollution monitoring.
No mention of Kapany is complete without his contribution to the Sikh community. If science were his pursuit, the hitherto neglected Sikh arts and literature were his passion. He set up the Sikh Foundation in the Bay Area in 1967 to preserve and foster the masterpieces of Sikh art and to further the essential teachings of peace and harmony of his religion. He has even constituted a scholarship to help Sikh students with funding higher studies in the US and UK.
In November 1999, Fortune magazine tagged him as one of the seven unsung heroes of the twentieth century. His contributions revolutionized living and made possible huge technological advancements. In some ways, he preceded the world of Gates and Jobs.
Had Kapany’s invention of fiber optics not come to the fore, perhaps, Microsoft and Apple would not have won with such speed as did their products. Many say the Nobel missed him and the 2009 Nobel to Charles Kao remains a debatable guess. The Indian government honored him posthumously with the 2021 Padma Vibhushan for outstanding contribution in the world of science and technology.