Currently, more than 3.2 million households and businesses in Greece have joined the largest fibre optic network in Greece, which is 43,000 kilometres long. It is a need we take for granted in our time and which we consider necessary due to the quality, speed, and quantity of data that can be transferred.
But what is the history behind the invention and spread of this revolutionary technology? In contrast to other telecommunication innovations, where the key driver had been commercial use, in the case of fibre optics the initial motive was achieving beauty.
The basic idea of fibre optics was first explored in the 1840s when scientists used jets of water to guide light at public academic events. In Paris in 1841, Swiss physicist J. Daniel Colladon first showed how we could direct light by having it refract through glass. He provided his colleagues with “not only a strange, but also the most beautiful experiment in the sector of optics”, as he himself wrote. His idea amazed the public when used in ballets and operas in Paris. Decades later it was used to create amazing illuminated fountains in several major Victorian Exhibitions of the 19th century.
The modern version of fibre optics — using flexible glass fibres to transmit light — was discovered by five researchers who were working independently until the mid-20th century, and one of the first basic applications was the gastroscope, which allowed doctors to look inside a body without surgical operation for the first time. Endoscopes came into practice in 1956, when three researchers from the University of Michigan discovered how to create solid fibres with a glass sheath. A few years later, in 1960, Indian physicist Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the “father of fibre optics”, created the neologism fibre optics.
With the invention of the laser, fibre optics communications developed rapidly. Chinese electrical engineer Charles K. Kao supported in 1965 that fibre optics could be used in telecommunications, an idea that won him the Nobel Prize many years later. In 1988 the first transatlantic fibre optic cable connected Europe to North America, and today fibre optics are the main element of global telecommunications.