Who Was Charles K. Kao? Today's Google Doodle Marks Physicist's 88th Birthday

The Google Doodle for November 4 celebrates Charles K. Kao, the Chinese-born British-American physicist. The Nobel laureate is known as the "father of fiber optic communications" for his work that led to the rapid growth of the internet.

Born on this day in 1933 in Shanghai, Kao studied electrical engineering in the U.K. and earned a PhD in the field in 1965. He later worked as an engineer at a research center for Standard Telephones & Cables, a British company, according to the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

In the 1960s, Kao discovered certain physical properties of glass that formed the foundation for high-speed data communication in the Information Age. He realized that bundles of thin fibers made from purified glass could carry large amounts of information over long distances and could replace copper wires for telecommunication, according to the Mayo Clinic journal. This discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in physics in 2009.

Kao founded the department of electrical engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1970 before moving to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1974.

In the U.S. he worked as chief scientist and later as director of engineering at ITT Corporation, the parent company of Standard Telephones & Cables. During this period, several important patents related to fiber-optic technology were filed.

A lighted bundle of optical fibers.
A bundle of optical fibers. Charles K. Kao, celebrated in today's Google Doodle, was known as the “father of fiber optic communications.” Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In 1977, the first telephone network carried live signals through optical fibers and over the following years Kao oversaw the implementation of fiber-optic networks around the world.

The physicist later worked as an adjunct professor at Yale and as vice chancellor at Chinese University of Hong Kong before retiring in 1996.

By 2009, when the Nobel committee applauded his "groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication," Kao was suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease, which had been first diagnosed five years earlier.

In 2010, Gwen Kao, the physicist's wife, launched the nonprofit Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease, motivated by her first-hand experience of taking care of a loved one with the disease. The foundation raises awareness around dementia and supports people affected by it and their caregivers.

In addition to the Nobel prize—which was shared with Canadian physicist Willard S. Boyle and American scientist George E. Smith, the inventors of the charge-coupled device used to convert optical information to an electrical signal—Kao received the Faraday Medal in 1989, the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1985, the Marconi Medal in 1985 as well as honorary degrees from universities around the world.

Kao died in September 2018 in Hong Kong.

Physicist Charles K. Kao in Hong Kong.
Charles K. Kao waves after being presented the Grand Bauhinia Medal in Hong Kong in November 2010. DAVID WONG/AFP via Getty Images