History of Fiber Optics

Let’s learn a little about the history of fiber-optics. Like many technological achievements, fiber-optic communications grew out of a succession of quests, some of them apparently unrelated. It is important to study the history of fiber optics to understand that the technology as it exists today is relatively new and still evolving.

This article is a preview from chapter 18 of the book “Cabling – The Complete Guide to Copper and Fiber-Optic”. It discusses the significant accomplishments that led to the creation of high-quality optical fibers and their use in high-speed communications and data transfer, as well as their integration into existing communications networks.

In this article:

Evolution of Light in Communication

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the first bioluminescent creatures began attracting mates and luring food by starting and stopping chemical reactions in specialized cells. Over time, these animals began to develop distinctive binary, or on-off, patterns to distinguish one another and communicate intentions quickly and accurately. Some of them have evolved complex systems of flashing lights and colors to carry as much information as possible in a single glance. These creatures were the first to communicate with light, a feat instinctive to them but tantalizing and elusive to modern civilization until recently.

Evolution of Light in Communication

Early Forms of Light Communication

Some of the first human efforts to communicate with light consisted of signal fires lit on hilltops or towers to warn of advancing armies, and lighthouses that marked dangerous coasts for ancient ships and gave them reference points in their journeys. To the creators of these signals, light’s tremendous speed (approximately 300,000 kilometers per second) made its travel over great distances seem instantaneous.

An early advance in these primitive signals was the introduction of relay systems to extend their range. In some cases, towers were spread out over hundreds of kilometers, each one in the line of sight of the next. With this system, a beacon could be relayed in the time it took each tower guard to light a fire – a matter of minutes – while the fastest transportation might have taken days.

Because each tower only needed in its line of sight the sending and receiving towers, the light, which normally travels in a straight line, could be guided around obstacles such as mountains as well as over the horizon. As early as the fourth century A.D., Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, was believed to have sent a signal from Jerusalem to Constantinople in a single day using a relay system.

Note: The principle behind signal relay towers is still used today in the form of repeaters, which amplify signals attenuated by travel over long distances through optical fibers.

Early signal towers and lighthouses, for all their usefulness, were still able to convey only very simple messages. Generally, no light meant one state, whereas a light signaled a change in that state. The next advance needed was the ability to send more detailed information with the light. A simple but notable example is the signal that prompted Paul Revere’s ride at the start of the American Revolution. By prearranged code, one light hung in the tower of Boston’s Old North Church signaled a British attack by land. Two lights meant an invasion by sea. The two lamps that shone in the tower not only conveyed a change in state, but also provided a critical detail about that change.

The Quest for Data Transmission

Until the 1800s, light had proven to be a speedy way to transmit simple information across great distances, but until new technologies were available, its uses were limited. It took a series of seemingly unrelated discoveries and inventions to harness the properties of light through optical fibers.

The first of these discoveries was made by Willebrord van Roijen Snell, a Dutch mathematician who in 1621 wrote the formula for the principle of refraction or the bending of light as it passes from one material into another. The phenomenon is easily observed by placing a stick into a glass of water. When viewed from above, the stick appears to bend because light travels more slowly through the water than through the air. Snell’s formula, published 70 years after his death, stated that every transparent substance had a particular index of refraction and that the amount that the light would bend was based on the relative refractive indices of the two materials through which the light was passing. Air has an approximate refractive index of 1 and water has a refractive index of 1.33.

Jean-Daniel Colladon

The next breakthrough came from Jean-Daniel Colladon, a Swiss physicist, and Jacques Babinet, a French physicist. In 1840, Colladon and Babinet demonstrated that bright light could be guided through jets of water through the principle of total internal reflection. In their demonstration, light from an arc lamp was used to illuminate a container of water. Near the bottom of the container was a hole through which the water could escape. As the water poured out of the hole, the light shining into the container followed the stream of water.

Their use of this discovery, however, was limited to illuminating decorative fountains and special effects in operas. It took John Tyndall, a natural philosopher, and physicist from Ireland, to bring the phenomenon to greater attention. In 1854, Tyndall performed the demonstration before the British Royal Society and made it part of his published works in 1871, casting a shadow over the contribution of Colladon and Babinet. Tyndall is now widely credited with discovering total internal reflection, although Colladon and Babinet had demonstrated it 14 years previously.

Total internal reflection takes place when light passing through a material with a higher index of refraction (the water in the experiment) hits a boundary layer with a material that has a lower index of refraction (the air). When this takes place, the boundary layer becomes reflective, and the light bounces off the boundary layer, remaining contained within the material with the higher index of refraction.

Shortly after Tyndall, Colladon, and Babinet laid the groundwork for routing light through a curved material, another experiment took place that showed how light could be used to carry higher volumes of data.

Alexander Bell

In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his photophone, one of the first true attempts to carry complex signals with light. It was also the first device to transmit signals wirelessly.

The photophone gathered sunlight onto a mirror attached to a mouthpiece that vibrated when a user spoke into it. The vibrating mirror reflected the light onto a receiver coated with selenium, which produced a modulated electrical signal that varied with the light coming from the sending device. The electrical signal went to headphones where the original voice input was reproduced.

Bell’s invention suffered from the fact that outside influences such as dust or stray light confused the signals, and clouds or other obstructions to light rendered the device inoperable.

Although Bell had succeeded in transmitting a modulated light signal nearly 200 meters, the photophone’s limitations had already fated it to be eclipsed by Bell’s earlier invention, the telephone.

Until light could be modulated and guided as well as electricity could, inventions such as the photophone would continue to enjoy only novelty status.

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References and Credits

Chapter 18: History of Fiber Optics and Broadband Access, pages 509 to 511 extracted from the book: Cabling – The Complete Guide to Copper and Fiber-Optic Networking, Andrew Oliviero and Bill Woodward


Articles posted after being checked by editors.

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