The digital age has brought the world closer together than ever before. Fibre optics is responsible for a large part of that connectivity. Data—in the form of light photons— transverses a network of glass and plastic cables at the speed of light (300,000 km/s or 186,000 mi/s) to its destination where it is reassembled into its original format. For reference, light can travel around the Earth’s equator of 40,075 kms (24,901 mis) 7.5 times in only one second. The technology is not only responsible for the progression of the internet but has led to great leaps in telecommunications and broadcasting as well.
The earliest known example of glass making dates back to 300 BC, during the Bronze Age. In 27 BC, the Romans were the first to separate glass into small fibres. They also created led piping and modern plumbing, things we take for granted today but were revolutionary back then.
The 1790s saw the invention of the first optical communications system. French scientist Claude Chappe constructed the Semaphore telegraph. It consisted of a series of towers with shutters/blades mounted to the roof. The shutters moved and rotated in a number of directions and were read by an operator. The message was then passed onto the next tower and continued down the line.
In the 1840s, Swiss physicist Jean-Daniel Colladon demonstrated that a light could be shone down a curved water jet and that it followed the arc. Jacques Babinet, another scientist, conducted a separate yet similar experiment in France and reached the same results. In 1870, Irish physicist John Tyndall performed the experiment for Britain’s Royal Society using a jug of water. It made an impact among the science community. The men had introduced the world to optical physics.
Alexander Graham Bell is famous for inventing the telephone. While he was working on it, the Scottish engineer toyed with the lesser known photophone. Unlike the telephone—where sound waves are converted into an electrical signal—the photophone transferred a sound as a beam of light. Bell felt the technology was limited and it was forgotten.
In the 1930s, Henrich Lamm, a German medical student, tried to create an optical endoscope, an instrument used to peer inside a person’s stomach. His idea was to use light pipes to see an image but the quality was too poor to be practical. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Lamm—having a Jewish background—was forced to flee to America and never finished his work.
In 1951, British physicist and academic Harold Hopkins successfully transferred an image via glass fibres for the first time. With the help of student Narinder Kapany constructing the device, the fibrescope was ground breaking because it wasn’t stiff and could easily bend. It had an eye piece at one end and a lens at the other. Hopkins continued to write science papers on his theories and was frequently labelled ‘The Father of Fibre Optics’ by his peers.
Building on Hopkin’s work, scientists Lawrence Curtiss, Basil Hirschowitz and Wilbur Peters created the world’s first gastroscope at the University of Michigan in 1957. Doctors could now clearly see inside a patient’s body and could diagnose irregularities.
In the 1960s, while fibre optics was advancing technology in the medical industry, the United Kingdom’s Corning Incorporated created a fibre optic cable for sending phone calls. It was very primitive but, by 1970, Robert D. Maured, Donald B. Keck and Peter C. Schultz had improved the design. The invention of the laser around this period was the last piece of the puzzle. Now light beams had a catalyst for sending information.
Slowly, fibre optic cables began to replace traditional copper and by the late 1970s many major telecommunication companies had replaced large sections of their networks with them. Fibre optic cables were preferred because they experienced less signal loss and didn’t suffer from electromagnetic interference. Each cable was made up of many fibres less than a tenth of the width of a human hair. Each cable could handle up to 25,000 telephone calls at once. The first application was laid between Long Beach and Artesia in California.
With further successful deployments in New York, Chicago and other countries around the world, the first transatlantic cable network was setup between England, France and the United States and was completed by 1988.
In 1991, optical amplifiers had been invented and were being built into the cables. The improvement boosted capabilities one hundred times more than the original rating.
In 1997, the longest single fibre optic cable network was commissioned. The Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe, FLAG for short, brought the UK, Asia and many other countries in between together.
With the arrival of the internet age, fibre optics helped to keep up with the boom in demand. Data transfer capacity was roughly 1000 megabytes in the 1980s, gigabytes by the 1990s and well into the terabytes by the 2000s.
It has been estimated that several million kilometres of fibre optic cable has been laid all over the planet since its introduction. That number continues to grow daily to meet business and consumer needs.
This article was originally posted on the now defunct Science Niche website on June 13th, 2019.
A Brief History of Fibre Optics – Timeline (https://www.megaport.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-fibre-optics/)
Fiber Optics (https://www.explainthatstuff.com/fiberoptics.html)
Fiber Optics – ETHW (https://ethw.org/Fiber_Optics)
Harold Horace Hopkins: A Short Biography (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1464-410X.2010.09717.x)
History of Fiber Optics (http://www.timbercon.com/history-of-fiber-optics/)
How The First Ever Telecoms Scam Worked (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPeVsniB7b0)
Optical Fibre 101 (https://www.corning.com/au/en/products/communication-networks/products/fiber/optical-fiber-basics.html)
What are the Basic Elements of a Fiber Optic Communication System? (https://www.elprocus.com/basic-elements-of-fiber-optic-communication-system-and-its-working/)
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