Fiber Optics at 50! How Corning Connected the World

Did you know that every call you make, every video conference you participate in, and every show you binge-watch is possible because of the network of glass underneath it all?

Fiber optic technology is the backbone of our communications networks all around the world these days. Video, audio, and data information is sent in the form of codes of laser light signals through tiny threads of precisely engineered glass known as optical fibers. Sending information in the form of these light codes has greatly increased the amount of information we can move and the speed at which it can be shared.

While the idea to communicate with codes of light signals had been discussed for many years, it wasn’t made possible until 1970 when scientists from Corning Glass Works (now known as Corning Incorporated) invented a capable combination of glasses. That makes this year—2020—the 50th anniversary of the development of the right glasses for this crucial technology!

We’re all taking great advantage of the potential of this technology during the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are able to continue their educational progress via virtual classrooms. Businesses, friends, and congregations are able to gather safely thanks to video-conferencing technology made possible by fiber optic technology. Even our passion for entertainment media is being supported by codes of laser light signals that are guided by these glass threads.

In the mid-1960s, Charles Kao, a physicist and electrical engineer working in England for Standard Telecommunication Industries, made public his theory that if light signals could be sent far enough through glass fibers, a very efficient new system of communication would be feasible. Light energy is lost via factors such as absorption, scattering, and radiation as it travels through glass, but Kao suggested that if that loss could be kept under the threshold of 20 decibels per kilometer (dB/km), fiber optic technology could succeed. Kao’s theory launched several teams of scientists from companies and universities all around the world to explore the possibility of creating such a glass. 

The biggest reason most glasses will not carry light signals far enough to be effective for communications is that they are loaded with impurities that affect the way light can pass through. For example, the windows we use in our homes and buildings look green when you look at them through the side edges. When looking through the edges, we are looking through a greater thickness of the material. This means light needs to travel through more impurities to get to your eye than it would when looking through the face of the window. Hence, we see more green or blue from such an angle. With enough thickness and enough impurities, the light can be blocked entirely, and the window may look black. You can see this if you look through the edges of the front doors of our Museum.

The Corning Glass Works’ team of Drs. Donald Keck, Robert Maurer, and Peter Schultz. Courtesy of the Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management, Corning, NY.

Corning Glass Works’ team of Drs. Donald Keck, Robert Maurer, and Peter Schultz thought it would be fruitful to look at a family of glasses different from what many teams were exploring. Most research groups were trying to purify glasses that were made directly from sand. Corning’s team examined the possibilities of high-silica glasses that were made from synthetically-purified sand. Eventually, Maurer, Keck, and Schultz determined the layering of two slightly different glasses would work most-effectively in keeping the light signal trapped within the glass fiber for the necessary distance, and on August 7th, 1970, Dr. Keck tested a new fiber that only lost 17 dB/km. He knew the team had succeeded in creating the necessary material for this groundbreaking technology to move forward. His notes in the laboratory data book from that day reflect his excitement as he wrote “17 dB/km…Whoopee!!” This is the 50th anniversary of that momentous day!

Dr. Keck’s notes on August 7, 1970, as he declares “Whoopee!” Courtesy of the Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management, Corning, NY.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, new fiber optic technologies were deployed to improve communications networks across the United States. Trans-Atlantic fiber cables were connecting communications to Europe by the late 1980s. Nowadays, the vast majority of communications signals that keep our world connected travel through these thin threads of glass, allowing for incredible new technologies to aid our lives at very reasonable prices. 

Many of us remember the days when internet connections were dreadfully slow, and it might take a minute or two just to download a single image. You might also remember a time when a long-distance phone call could cost as much as $1.00/minute. Now, fiber optic technology moves our signals so efficiently that waiting is a thing of the past and we don’t even consider that sort of pricing anymore. A video signal, however, requires a great deal more information to be sent than a simple voice call. With improvements in our communications networks thanks to fiber optics, we can move information so quickly that it’s possible to watch movies all day long and even have real-time videoconferencing with our colleagues and loved ones.

Fiber optic technology has helped our businesses, schools, and social lives stay connected through these turbulent times when we all need to stay physically distanced from one another. So, there’s no better time to give thanks and celebrate the golden anniversary of this amazing technology. Whoopee!! 

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Eric Goldschmidt is the Properties of Glass Programs Supervisor at The Corning Museum of Glass. He has been working with flameworked glass since 1996, when his roommate introduced him to the torch. Since then, he has studied with and assisted many of the world’s most talented glass artists. These experiences have given him a vast array of techniques from which to draw. He combines this wealth of knowledge with his own interests in the subtle energies of the natural world, delicate forms, and intricate color application to create original new works.

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. Corning is a great Company. I credit the special people there during my 18 years at Corning for the successes I have had at Corning and in my work after. Thank you Corning!
    Angelo Mitchell, 1966 – 1984.

  2. I remember Angelo! Became quite a successful in Silicon Valley after he left Corning Glass Works.

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