Fifty Years Young: The ‘new’ technology of fiber optics

Published On
Aug 15, 2022

I’m continually surprised by the suggestion that fiber optics is a new technology. I hear or read it all the time now, from news articles talking about broadband to new techs working in the field. I guess some people don’t realize that fiber has been around for half a century and enables all communications, from the internet to the smartphone. Perhaps it’s time for a little history.

The dawn of fiber optics

The story of developing a technology such as fiber optics is often a timeline of technical breakthroughs, followed by years of slow but sure evolution. Fiber optics communications is usually said to have begun with Dr. Charles Kao at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the United Kingdom, who wrote about using strands of glass for telecommunications in 1966. That won him a Nobel Prize.

It took several years of research and development for three glass engineers at Corning—Donald Keck, Peter Schultz and Robert Maurer—to develop the vapor deposition method, an optical fiber manufacturing technique that allowed the production of sufficiently low-loss fibers for actual telecom applications. The next decade was spent developing the process sufficiently to allow large-scale manufacture of single-mode optical fiber.

The evolutionary process

Over the last 40 years, the basic design of single-mode fiber has not changed significantly. Development has focused on better and faster fiber construction so manufacturers can make millions of kilometers of high-quality fiber.

Multimode fiber has several more stages in its development. Its continued use has mainly been driven by its ability to use cheaper transmitters for short, slow premises networks of personal computers. But as network speeds became too fast for LED transmitters and required VCSEL lasers, fiber returned to a multimode design used in the early 1980s for the first telecom networks. With the advent of cheaper single-mode transmitters, multimode fiber is on the verge of obsolescence.

Fiber optic cable technology evolved from copper telecommunications cable designs, modified to protect the fibers in harsh environments. Even submarine cables evolved from copper cable designs, but fiber was much easier to develop. It took over 50 years to lay a trans-Atlantic copper cable, but only about 5 years for fiber. Since TAT-8 was laid in 1988, over 400 submarine cables have been installed that connect every continent except Antarctica.

Joining optical fibers began with mechanical splices and quickly moved to fusion splicing. I have no idea who invented fusion splicing of fibers with an electrical arc; the history is lost. All I remember is seeing manual fusion splicers from several companies around the world in the late 1970s that have evolved into today’s automated machines, some made by the same companies.

Connectors is one area where the most ingenious (and weird) solutions have appeared. Aligning two 125-micron fibers with 50-micron (multimode) or 9-micron (single-mode) cores to a precision of less than 1 micron is not a simple matter. Manufacturers tried drilled metal ferrules, molded plastic ferrules, V-grooves and even added lenses trying to get low-loss connections. Over 100 different connector designs were developed by almost as many companies. ( See”Wavelength Division Multiplexing” on ecmag.com for more details. )

Everything changed when the molded ceramic ferrule was invented in 1984 because it could be molded to sub-micron precision, solving the alignment problem. Ceramics were also easy to glue to fibers, since ceramics and glass are similar and are stable over temperature. Today, almost all connectors use one of the standard ceramic ferrules, 2.5 mm or 1.25 mm in diameter.

That’s why my hackles go up when I hear fiber optics referred to as a new technology. Most of what we use today was developed about 40 years ago! Since then, the real developments have been in networks, not the fiber optic cable plant. (Maybe that’s the subject of a future column.)

Fiber optics is not new to the electrical contractor either. I did my first training for electrical workers at Local 3 in New York around 1987 and attended the NECA Convention before 1990. By the mid-1990s, the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) was partnering with NECA on Fiber U training conferences and training JATC instructors at the NJATC National Training Institute. Today, 34 JATCs use the FOA fiber optic program in their training programs.

ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR has been a pioneer in introducing fiber optics to contractors. I wrote my first article on fiber optics for the magazine before 1997, and I have been writing articles monthly since 2000. I guess that makes us all pioneers!

If you’d like to learn more, I’ve developed a timeline of the history of fiber optics at www.foa.org/Timeline.

About the Author

Jim Hayes

Fiber Optics Columnist and Contributing Editor

Jim Hayes is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.

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