Sir Charles Kao: Inspiration for 1977 Stevenage-Hitchin fibre optic trial dies

Sir Charles Kao in 2004, receiving an honorary degree from Princeton University in New Jersey, US. P

Sir Charles Kao in 2004, receiving an honorary degree from Princeton University in New Jersey, US. Picture: David Dobkin - Credit: Archant

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sir Charles Kao, whose work formed the basis for the 1977 Hitchin-to-Stevenage fibre optic trial, has died at the age of 84.

Sir Charles was known as the father of fibre optics, and won a joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for his groundbreaking achievements in that field.

A team building on his work created a world-leading fibre optic link between Hitchin and Stevenage in 1977 – which laid the groundwork for the infrastructure that gives us video streaming, social networks and more in the 21st century.

Sir Charles and George Hockham were working for Standard Telecommunications Laboratores in 1966 when they predicted that optical fibres – thin, flexible rods of high-quality glass – could transmit high-speed data over long distances.

Harlow-based STL created the link in 1977, using Post Office ducts to connect the telephone exchanges in Hitchin and Stevenage – about 5½ miles or 9km apart – and demonstrate 140 megabit-per-second transmissions.

This would be enough to carry more than 2,000 phone calls – and though it’s only slightly quicker than the superfast broadband we’re used to today, at the time it was the fastest transmission rate in the world.

The route roughly followed the A602 from Hitchin’s exchange in Hollow Lane to Stevenage’s in Exchange Road, punctuated by repeaters at 3km intervals near Little Wymondley and Coreys Mill.

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This cutting-edge communications system, put together by STL’s scientists in association with London-based Standard Telephones and Cables, turned Charles Kao’s theory into reality – and proved a pivotal moment in the history of optical communications, with Britain becoming a world leader in fibre optics development.

Sir Charles battled Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade before his death in a Hong Kong hospice on Sunday. Despite his illness, he still recognised his wife and their two children until the end.

As well as the Nobel Prize in Physics, Sir Charles won the Faraday Medal in 1989 and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1985.

Paying tribute after his death, Hong Kong government head Carrie Lam described the eminent physicist as the “pride of Hong Kong”.