First, it was Jagadish Chandra Bose at the turn of the century, Then Satyendranath Bose, G N Ramachandran, E C George Sudarshan and then Narinder Singh Kapany overlooked at the time of awarding of the Nobel prize in physics.
Considered as the father of fiber optics on a global scale, Dr Narinder Singh Kapany’s research in the 1950’s led to the development of fiber optics and he was the first person to demonstrate the transmission of an image through a bundle of glass fibers.
Born to a Sikh family in Moga, Punjab, on October 31, 1926, and studied at Agra University. He served briefly as an Indian Ordnance Factories Service officer, before going to Imperial College London in 1952 to work on a Ph.D. degree in optics, which he obtained in 1955.
At Imperial College, Kapany worked with Harold Hopkins on transmission through fibers, achieving good image transmission through a large bundle of optical fibers for the first time in 1953. Optical fibers had been tried for image transmission before, but Hopkins and Kapany’s technique allowed much better image quality than could previously be achieved. His primary interest was to use them in medical instruments for looking inside the human body.
It was then when he coined the term, though there is still a controversy as to whether the term was coined in 1955 or 1960 Kapany coined the term ‘fiber optics’ in an article in Scientific American in 1960 as per some sources. Kapany’s research and inventions have encompassed fiber-optics communications, lasers, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring. He has over one hundred patents and was a member of the National Inventors Council.
He has specialized in the processes of innovation and the management of technology and technology transfer. In 1960, he founded Optics Technology Inc. and was chairman of the board, President, and Director of Research for twelve years. In 1967 the company went public. In 1973, Kapany founded Kaptron Inc. and was President and CEO until 1990 when he sold the company to AMP Incorporated.
For the next nine years, Kapany was an AMP Fellow, heading the Entrepreneur & Technical Expert Program and serving as Chief Technologist for Global Communications Business. He recently founded K2 Optronics. He has also served on the boards of various companies. He was a member of the Young Presidents Organization and later was a member of the World Presidents Organization.
As an academic, Kapany has taught and supervised research activity of postgraduate students.he has published over 100 scientific papers and four books on optoelectronics and entrepreneurship. He has lectured to various national and international scientific societies. In November 1999, Fortune magazine published profiles of seven people who have greatly influenced life in the twentieth century but are unsung heroes. Kapany was one of them.
Kapany has been active in education and the arts. He was the founding chairman of the Sikh Foundation has been a major funder of its activities for over 50 years. In collaboration with international institutions and publishers, the Foundation runs programs in publishing, academia and the arts. As an art collector, Kapany has specialized in Sikh art. He provided paintings and other objects on loan for various art exhibitions.
As an artist, Kapany has created 40 “dynoptic” sculptures which were first displayed in a one-man show at the Exploratorium of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1972. Since then, the collection has been viewed at museums and art galleries in Chicago, Monterey, Palo Alto, and Stanford.
When the Nobel Committee awarded the 2009 Prize to Kao, many in the scientific community were perplexed that Kapany was overlooked for the award. In fact, the Nobel Committee had even acknowledged Kapany’s work in a detailed publication. The man himself, however, wasn’t too perturbed by this oversight. Speaking to India Today in 1999, Kapany expressed his sentiments.
“What can you say about this. It is known that Prof Kao started work in this field many years after me. He faced competition too. I don’t think there should be any controversy about it. It is up to the Swedish Academy to decide. They have used whatever criteria they wanted to use.” he said. Currently, in his 90s, he has over 100 patents to his name
In any discovery or invention, many people play a role, and it would be wrong to say only one person did all the work. However, some people play a crucial role and show the way for further research. In the case of fiber optics, Kapany played such a critical role. There were others who had realized that glass cylinders or fibers could be used to transmit light, but Kapany was more successful than anybody else in solving the problems involved and scientifically demonstrating the same,
Despite Kapany’s work, the loss of signal over long distances via optical glass fiber was a recurring problem. What Kao did was work out how to fix this problem, and calculate how to transmit light over long distances. It was his work which led to the fabrication of the first ultrapure fiber in 1970. This was a game-changer in modern communication systems.
“The important thing is to be a man of the world, that’s what I have tried to be, and to a small extent succeeded, but I like to do things for people.”
– Dr Narinder Kapany
He has received many awards including ‘The Excellence 2000 Award‘ from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce in 1998. He is an International Fellow of numerous scientific societies including the British Royal Academy of Engineering, the Optical Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, which was bestowed by the Indian government and presented by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.
Having said that, many feel that Kapany should have shared the Nobel Prize with Kao, considering his pioneering work in the ’50s. However, the trailblazing Sikh doesn’t seem to mind.
Dr. Narinder Kapany, a name that should be synonymous with other great contributors to technology and science like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, gave the world fiber optics. A brilliant yet humble visionary, who has countless life lessons to offer and an infectious laugh that brings a beaming smile to anyone within earshot.
His dedication and commitment to his research and fellow man have helped shape the very nature of our world today. Without his efforts, the world would have been dull with shades of black, grey and white; instead, we see it in a myriad of colors and waves. If you are told to believe something, even though it doesn’t sit right with you, don’t take it for its face value. Go out and try to disprove it. You just may, in fact, be responsible for the next great invention to affect our lives and change our world for the better.