Charles K. Kao is world-renowned physicist and electrical engineer. In 2009, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics, along with fellow physicist Willard Boyle and George E. Smith, for his discovery of how light can be transmitted through fibre optic cables, while Boyle and Smith won for their work in inventing the charge-coupled device. After graduating from the University of London with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1957, Kao went on to work for the British subsidiary of ITT, Standard Telephones and Cables in the U.K., transferring to their Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in 1960.
Then, after obtaining his Ph.D. (also in electrical engineering) in 1965, Kao, working with British engineer George Hockham, “proposed that fibres made of ultra-pure glass could transmit light for distances of kilometres without a total loss of signal.” It was a groundbreaking ,discovery that “laid the groundwork for high-speed data communication in the Information Age” and resulted in Kao being dubbed the “father of fiber optic communications.”
In 1970, the Chinese University of Hong Kong invited Dr. Kao to establish an electronics department, which he spent four years developing at the university, even establishing a graduate program before he left in 1974. He rejoined ITT after his university position, this time in the U.S., working as chief scientist of its electro-optical products division, before becoming that division’s director of engineering. And while living and working in the U.S. Kao also worked as an adjunct professor at Yale in the ‘80s (shoutout to all adjuncts!).
In 1987, he returned to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this time to serve as vice-chancellor and president until 1996, before moving on to serve as CEO of Transtech, a fiber optics company, and then ITX services, a technology transfer company.
In 2004, Kao was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, later founding the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease Limited in 2010 “to promote awareness about and care for those with the disease in Hong Kong.” In fact, after winning his Nobel Prize, Kao used the award money primarily to pay his medical bills. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Kao has won many, many other accolades, including “the Faraday Medal in 1989, the Alexander Graham Medal in 1985, the Marconi Medal in 1985, and many honorary degrees from universities and colleges worldwide.”
If you’d like to read Kao’s own account of his life and family history, follow the link in the heading (his name) or click here.