Short history of fiber optics

By Jeff Hecht

Reproduced from Fiber Optics Technician's Handbook, by Jim Hayes, Delmar Publishers, Albany, New York.

For the full history of fiber optics, see my book, City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999. (ISBN 0-19-510818-3) A book in the Sloan Foundation Technology series. For near-immediate gratification, order now from Amazon.com.

Optical communication systems date back two centuries, to the "optical telegraph" that French engineer Claude Chappe invented in the 1790s. His system was a series of semaphores mounted on towers, where human operators relayed messages from one tower to the next. It beat hand-carried messages hands down, but by the mid-19th century was replaced by the electric telegraph, leaving a scattering of "Telegraph Hills" as its most visible legacy.

Alexander Graham Bell patented an optical telephone system, which he called the Photophone, in 1880, but his earlier invention, the telephone, proved far more practical. He dreamed of sending signals through the air, but the atmosphere didn't transmit light as reliably as wires carried electricity. In the decades that followed, light was used for a few special applications, such as signalling between ships, but otherwise optical communications, like the experimental Photophone Bell donated to the Smithsonian Institution, languished on the shelf.

In the intervening years, a new technology slowly took root that would ultimately solve the problem of optical transmission, although it was a long time before it was adapted for communications. It depended on the phenomenon of total internal reflection, which can confine light in a material surrounded by other materials with lower refractive index, such as glass in air. In the 1840s, Swiss physicist Daniel Collodon and French physicist Jacques Babinet showed that light could be guided along jets of water for fountain displays. British physicist John Tyndall popularized light guiding in a demonstration he first used in 1854, guiding light in a jet of water flowing from a tank. By the turn of the century, inventors realized that bent quartz rods could carry light, and patented them as dental illuminators. By the 1940s, many doctors used illuminated plexiglass tongue depressors.

Optical fibers went a step further. They are essentially transparent rods of glass or plastic stretched so they are long and flexible. During the 1920s, John Logie Baird in England and Clarence W. Hansell in the United States patented the idea of using arrays of hollow pipes or transparent rods to transmit images for television or facsimile systems. However, the first person known to have demonstrated image transmission through a bundle of optical fibers was Heinrich Lamm, than a medical student in Munich. His goal was to look inside inaccessible parts of the body, and in a 1930 paper he reported transmitting the image of a light bulb filament through a short bundle. However, the unclad fibers transmitted images poorly, and the rise of the Nazis forced Lamm, a Jew, to move to America and abandon his dreams of becoming a professor of medicine.

In 1951, Holger Møller [or Moeller, the o has a slash through it] Hansen applied for a Danish patent on fiber-optic imaging. However, the Danish patent office denied his application, citing the Baird and Hansell patents, and Møller Hansen was unable to interest companies in his invention. Nothing more was reported on fiber bundles until 1954, when Abraham van Heel of the Technical University of Delft in Holland and Harold. H. Hopkins and Narinder Kapany of Imperial College in London separately announced imaging bundles in the prestigious British journal Nature.

Neither van Heel nor Hopkins and Kapany made bundles that could carry light far, but their reports the fiber optics revolution. The crucial innovation was made by van Heel, stimulated by a conversation with the American optical physicist Brian O'Brien. All earlier fibers were "bare," with total internal reflection at a glass-air interface. van Heel covered a bare fiber or glass or plastic with a transparent cladding of lower refractive index. This protected the total-reflection surface from contamination, and greatly reduced crosstalk between fibers. The next key step was development of glass-clad fibers, by Lawrence Curtiss, then an undergraduate at the University of Michigan working part-time on a project to develop an endoscope to examine the inside of the stomach with physician Basil Hirschowitz, physicist C. Wilbur Peters. (Will Hicks, then working at the American Optical Co., made glass-clad fibers at about the same time, but his group lost a bitterly contested patent battle.) By 1960, glass-clad fibers had attenuation of about one decibel per meter, fine for medical imaging, but much too high for communications.

Meanwhile, telecommunications engineers were seeking more transmission bandwidth. Radio and microwave frequencies were in heavy use, so they looked to higher frequencies to carry loads they expected to continue increasing with the growth of television and telephone traffic. Telephone companies thought video telephones lurked just around the corner, and would escalate bandwidth demands even further. The cutting edge of communications research were millimeter-wave systems, in which hollow pipes served as waveguides to circumvent poor atmospheric transmission at tens of gigahertz, where wavelengths were in the millimeter range.

Even higher optical frequencies seemed a logical next step in 1958 to Alec Reeves, the forward-looking engineer at Britain's Standard Telecommunications Laboratories who invented digital pulse-code modulation before World War II. Other people climbed on the optical communications bandwagon when the laser was invented in 1960. The July 22, 1960 issue of Electronics magazine introduced its report on Theodore Maiman's demonstration of the first laser by saying "Usable communications channels in the electromagnetic spectrum may be extended by development of an experimental optical-frequency amplifier."

Serious work on optical communications had to wait for the continuouswave helium-neon laser. While air is far more transparent at optical wavelengths than to millimeter waves, researchers soon found that rain, haze, clouds, and atmospheric turbulence limited the reliability of long-distance atmospheric laser links. By 1965, it was clear that major technical barriers remained for both millimeter-wave and laser telecommunications. Millimeter waveguides had low loss, although only if they were kept precisely straight; developers thought the biggest problem was the lack of adequate repeaters. Optical waveguides were proving to be a problem. Stewart Miller's group at Bell Telephone Laboratories was working on a system of gas lenses to focus laser beams along hollow waveguides for long-distance telecommunications. However, most of the telecommunications industry thought the future belonged to millimeter waveguides.

Optical fibers had attracted some attention because they were analogous in theory to plastic dielectric waveguides used in certain microwave applications. In 1961, Elias Snitzer at American Optical, working with Hicks at Mosaic Fabrications (now Galileo Electro-Optics), demonstrated the similarity by drawing fibers with cores so small they carried light in only one waveguide mode. However virtually everyone considered fibers too lossy for communications; attenuation of a decibel per meter was fine for looking inside the body, but communications operated over much longer distances, and required loss no more than 10 or 20 decibels per kilometer.

One small group did not dismiss fibers so easily -- a team at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories initially headed by Antoni E. Karbowiak, which worked under Reeves to study optical waveguides for communications. Karbowiak soon was joined by a young engineer born in Shanghai, Charles K. Kao.

Kao took a long, hard look at fiber attenuation. He collected samples from fiber makers, and carefully investigated the properties of bulk glasses. His research convinced him that the high losses of early fibers were due to impurities, not to silica glass itself. In the midst of this research, in December 1964, Karbowiak left STL to become chair of electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and Kao succeeded him as manager of optical communications research. With George Hockham, another young STL engineer who specialized in antenna theory, Kao worked out a proposal for long-distance communications over single-mode fibers. Convinced that fiber loss should be reducible below 20 decibels per kilometer, they presented a paper at a London meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The April 1, 1966 issue of Laser Focus noted Kao's proposal:

 

Kao and Hockham's detailed analysis was published in the July 1966 Proceedings of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Their daring forecast that fiber loss could be reduced below 20 dB/km attracted the interest of the British Post Office, which then operated the British telephone network. F. F. Roberts, an engineering manager at the Post Office Research Laboratory (then at Dollis Hill in London), saw the possibilities, and persuaded others at the Post Office. His boss, Jack Tillman, tapped a new research fund of 12 million pounds to study ways to decrease fiber loss.

With Kao almost evangelically promoting the prospects of fiber communications, and the Post Office interested in applications, laboratories around the world began trying to reduce fiber loss. It took four years to reach Kao's goal of 20 dB/km, and the route to success proved different than many had expected. Most groups tried to purify the compound glasses used for standard optics, which are easy to melt and draw into fibers. At the Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.), Robert Maurer, Donald Keck and Peter Schultz started with fused silica, a material that can be made extremely pure, but has a high melting point and a low refractive index. They made cylindrical performs by depositing purified materials from the vapor phase, adding carefully controlled levels of dopants to make the refractive index of the core slightly higher than that of the cladding, without raising attenuation dramatically. In September 1970, they announced they had made single-mode fibers with attenuation at the 633-nanometer helium-neon line below 20 dB/km. The fibers were fragile, but tests at the new British Post Office Research Laboratories facility in Martlesham Heath confirmed the low loss.

The Corning breakthrough was among the most dramatic of many developments that opened the door to fiber-optic communications. In the same year, Bell Labs and a team at the Ioffe Physical Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) made the first semiconductor diode lasers able to emit continuouswave at room temperature. Over the next several years, fiber losses dropped dramatically, aided both by improved fabrication methods and by the shift to longer wavelengths where fibers have inherently lower attenuation.

Early single-mode fibers had cores several micrometers in diameter, and in the early 1970s that bothered developers. They doubted it would be possible to achieve the micrometer-scale tolerances needed to couple light efficiently into the tiny cores from light sources, or in splices or connectors. Not satisfied with the low bandwidth of step-index multimode fiber, they concentrated on multi-mode fibers with a refractive-index gradient between core and cladding, and core diameters of 50 or 62.5 micrometers. The first generation of telephone field trials in 1977 used such fibers to transmit light at 850 nanometers from gallium-aluminum-arsenide laser diodes.

Those first-generation systems could transmit light several kilometers without repeaters, but were limited by loss of about 2 dB/km in the fiber. A second generation soon appeared, using new InGaAsP lasers which emitted at 1.3 micrometer, where fiber attenuation was as low as 0.5 dB/km, and pulse dispersion was somewhat lower than at 850 nm. Development of hardware for the first transatlantic fiber cable showed that single-mode systems were feasible, so when deregulation opened the long-distance phone market in the early 1980s, the carriers built national backbone systems of single-mode fiber with 1300-nm sources. That technology has spread into other telecommunication applications, and remains the standard for most fiber systems.

However, a new generation of single-mode systems is now beginning to find applications in submarine cables and systems serving large numbers of subscribers. They operate at 1.55 micrometers, where fiber loss is 0.2 to 0.3 dB/km, allowing even longer repeater spacings. More important, erbium-doped optical fibers can serve as optical amplifiers at that wavelength, avoiding the need for electro-optic regenerators. Submarine cables with optical amplifiers can operate at speeds to 5 gigabits per second, and can be upgraded from lower speeds simply to changing terminal electronics. Optical amplifiers also are attractive for fiber systems delivering the same signals to many terminals, because the fiber amplifiers can compensate for losses in dividing the signals among many terminals.

The biggest challenge remaining for fiber optics is economic. Today telephone and cable television companies can cost-justify installing fiber links to remote sites serving tens to a few hundreds of customers. However, terminal equipment remains too expensive to justify installing fibers all the way to homes, at least for present services. Instead, cable and phone companies run twisted wire pairs or coaxial cables from optical network units to individual homes. Time will see how long that lasts.

Acknowledgments Thanks to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for research support. This is a much expanded version of an article originally published in the November 1994 Laser Focus World.

See a chronology of fiber-optic development

For the full history of fiber optics, see my book, City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999. (ISBN 0-19-510818-3) A book in the Sloan Foundation Technology series. For near-immediate gratification, order now from Amazon.com.

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