Three fiber-optic engineers--Charles K. Kao, Robert D. Maurer, and John B. MacChesney--were in Washington, DC, last week to collect $500,000 for winning the 1999 Charles Stark Draper Prize. The prize, awarded by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), was presented at a dinner on February 22 in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the U.S. Department of State as part of National Engineers Week. This year, the NAE chose to honor these engineers "for the conception and invention of optical fiber for communications and for the development of manufacturing processes that made the telecommunications revolution possible." The fiber pioneers will share the cash prize.
Through their efforts, Kao, Maurer, and MacChesney created the basis of modern fiber-optic communications. Says a spokesman for the NAE, "Dr. Kao had the original idea. He wrote a theoretical paper, which described how fiber optics could be used for telecommunication. Dr. Maurer showed that, in fact, fibers could be made with the right physical properties. Dr. MacChesney showed that this fiber could be produced in large volumes."
Fiber has become a key ingredient in today's Information Age, making fast and accurate data transmission possible. Dr. Kao sums up the importance of the access that fiber communications provide to the public: "With the World Wide Web and the Internet, we are able to get as much information as a company or the government can gather. That is real empowerment."
Kao was working at ITT's Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the 1960s when he theorized about how to use light instead of copper wire for communication, and was the first to publicly propose the possibility of practical fiber-optic telecommunications. Maurer led a team of researchers at Corning Inc. that included co-inventors Donald Keck and Peter Schultz, who designed and produced the first optical fiber in 1970. MacChesney and his colleagues at Bell Laboratories followed in 1974 with the modified chemical vapor deposition process, which made mass production of high-quality optical fiber practical.
Charles K. Kao was born in Shanghai, China, and received a B.Sc. in 1957 and a Ph.D. in from the University of London. He joined ITT in 1957 and rose through the ranks from research scientist to research manager. In 1974, Kao joined the electro-optical products division in Roanoke, VA, as chief scientist and later became director of engineering. In 1982, ITT named him the first ITT executive scientist, and he became corporate director of research in 1986. From 1987 until 1996, Dr. Kao served as vice chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is currently chairman and chief executive officer of Transtech Services Ltd. in Hong Kong and continues his efforts in telecommunications and information network development.
Robert D. Maurer is a native of Arkadelphia, AR. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Arkansas in 1948 and a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1951. After a post-graduate year at MIT, Maurer joined the physics department at Corning's Sullivan Park research and development laboratory. He served as a research physicist, senior research associate and manager of Corning's Fundamental Physics Department. He was named research fellow, Corning's highest technical position, in 1978, and retired in 1989.
John B. MacChesney was born in New Jersey, and earned a B.A. in chemistry from Bowdoin College in 1951. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and subsequently at Pennsylvania State University, from which he graduated with a Ph.D. in geochemistry in 1959. At that time he joined Bell Laboratories, where he has continued his employment to the rank of fellow. MacChesney remains engaged in the development of glass and its processing to economically produce next-generation optical devices.
The Charles Stark Draper Prize, established by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and endowed by Draper Laboratory (Cambridge, MA), has been awarded since 1988 to "recognize individuals whose outstanding engineering achievements have contributed to the well-being and freedom of humanity," says the NAE. The once-biennial prize will now be awarded annually.