Father of Fibre Optics

Roopinder Singh

Narinder Singh Kapany Father of Fibre Optics

When light spelt FIBRE

He was provided with the facilities he needed at the Imperial College, and he used the practical knowledge acquired at the Raipur ordinance factory to demonstrate his theories.

Let’s go back to the moment when he made his breakthrough through the account he gives in his book. The 25-year-old Narinder had failed quite a few times earlier, and his self-analysis led him to conclude that his hypothesis was sound. Pilkington, the optical cable manufacturer, had used inferior glass instead of pure glass, which had let him down. He shortened the length of the cable and finally succeeded in transmitting a high-quality image through optical cables. Then he invited his 34-year-old mentor to his laboratory.

“Later that day, and on my request, Professor appeared in the lab. In the time between my first successful test and Hopkins’ arrival, I had fixed a black mask with a cut-out word FIBRE to a lens that I set up in front of the business end of the remaining Pilkington (fibre optic) bunch and beamed it to a makeshift projection screen on the far wall.

“Well, Kapany, what do you have to show me?”

I pulled up the single chair in the lab, placed in the best line of sight to the screen and urged him to sit.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” he said, feigning impatience.

“I closed the door, shut off all the lights, and in a single final effort, I switched on the light source and there it was on the screen like an optometrist’s chart but with only a single line of large letters as clear as could be: F…… I…B… R…E.”

Dr. N.S. Kapany with his invention Dr. N.S. Kapany with his invention

He did his formative scientific work in London. An article in Popular Mechanics dated September 1955 describes the “Fibrescope”, developed by “Dr. H H Hopkins and 27-year-old Punjabi, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany.” The affection he has for this period and the place was evident when one spoke to him.

Sees Satinder, courts her, & they marry

Narinder’s other major achievement in London and in his life was his marriage to Satinder in 1954. It took place at the only gurdwara in Britain, Shepard’s Bush Gurdwara in London, considered the oldest gurdwara in Europe. “It was a genuine red-letter event, well attended by relatives and friends of mine, and Satinder’s from India and England and elsewhere, as well as by a large contingent of my professors and colleagues from Imperial College.… Everyone at the reception was dressed to the nines, at least 100 attendees there to feast on a full dinner buffet and champagne. Neither Satinder nor I could really afford it, but somehow we scraped together enough cash to make it happen.”

Later, in 1954, the International Commission on Optics Conference in Florence, Italy, invited him to present a paper. In Florence, he was shocked to find that the luggage in Satinder and his car had been stolen, along with all their clothes! The thieves had no use for the lecture notes and material, though. Aided by the good-humoured Hopkins, he went on stage and, instead of the allocated 15 minutes, he spoke for 40 minutes on audience demand!

To the land of Lady Liberty

Professor Robert Hopkins listened to this presentation and persuaded him to teach at Rochester University, New York. Narinder’s son Rajinder Singh Kapany, popularly known as Raj, was born there. Raj would work with his father for 20 years before branching out as an entrepreneur and a consultant. He specialises in communications and is on the Board of Directors or Advisory Boards of seven private technology companies.

Narinder and his family spent two years in Rochester. “Unlike living in London, where typically you didn’t know anyone living in your proximity—or even in your apartment building—in our Rochester neighbourhood, we came to know everyone. And everyone seems to be throwing a party almost every night.”

Contrary to the manner in which the British Professor Hopkins had postulated, “the University of Rochester was anything but a sleepy place. The fact borne out by five of my graduate students and me preparing papers devoted to our work together on fibre optics in just a little over a year. We presented them, the six of us, at the annual meeting of the Optical Society of America in Lake Placid, New York, where once again, my plan to return to India, such as it was, was thwarted by a man from the back of the room.”

The year was 1956, and Narinder got an offer from Dr Leonard Reiffel. Soon, the Kapany family would move to Chicago, where Narinder headed the Optics Department of Illinois Institute of Technology, overseeing the work of 30 scientists and engineers.

Chicago’s “inventing machine”

“Making the move to Chicago turned out to be one of the best business and life decisions I have made. Working in the department with top-flight, highly motivated individuals with curious minds was totally energising. The four years that I ended up working in Chicago were the most productive in my life, with a multitude of publications and dozens of patents to my credit, the number of which Corning, a major corporate player in the optics world, was exceedingly interested in and eventually procured.

“As an extra incentive, the Institute offered everyone in the department a cash bonus every month that he or she came up with an invention. With fibre optics still so new, everyone was inventing things willy-nilly, from ways to improve overall fibre quality, to ways to magnifying or minifying fibres. It got to a point for me that the notable months were those when I didn’t score a bonus. In relatively short order, I’d become an inventing machine,” he writes.

By this time, the family had Kiran Kaur Kapany (Kiki) too, and the children began their early years in Chicago, although the parents felt that the environment was not one in which they wanted to raise their children.

Meeting Nehru and Krishna Menon

The wish to shift to India was always there, but it was not to be. In Rochester, he thought of moving back, but then came the opportunity to move to Chicago. Later, while he was still in Chicago, he was called to New York and introduced to India’s Defence Minister Krishna Menon by Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala. Menon invited him to India and to speak at the Defence Service Conference, which was addressed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Defence Minister, Homi Bhabha, the head of Atomic Energy Commission… and Narinder Kapany.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru met him the next day. “My hour with Mr. Nehru was one of the most refreshing and personally rewarding hours I have ever spent. He seemed altogether understanding and interested in what I wanted to accomplish, both in science and with life. And it was not in a cursory way, but deeper, more emotional, and more profound level. He was also very candid about his own aspirations as a politician and as a man, and how, and whether they had been realised. He was simply one of the most brilliant, receptive, and engaging individuals whom I’ve ever met, equally able to follow the science of what I was talking about, as well as its possible social and philosophical ramifications. At some point in a quite disparate ramblings, I agreed to become Krishna Menon’s science advisor.”

He was, however, rightly warned about the glacially slow Indian bureaucracy’s red tape. He waited for months, but then the family moved to Silicon Valley, California, where, eventually, the offer letter from the UPSC finally arrived. By then, it was too late.

Roopinder Singh
Roopinder Singh is the author of MIAF Arjan Singh DFC (2002) Guru Nanak: His Life and Teachings (2004), and Delhi ’84 (2014). He is co-author of Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics (2012). He has edited two festschrifts: Giani Gurdit Singh 2023-2007 and Inderjit Kaur Sandhu: An Inspiring Journey. The Chandigarh-based author was Senior Associate Editor of The Tribune. He wrote extensively in his three decades, held many charges, and founded the Internet edition. An award-winning photographer, he has been speaking extensively at academic and public forums. Website: www.roopinder.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/singh.roopinder