Father of Fibre Optics

Roopinder Singh

Narinder Singh Kapany Father of Fibre Optics

Optics Technology, Palo Alto

Dr. N.S. Kapany receiving Key to Palo Alto City Dr. N.S. Kapany receiving Key to Palo Alto City

Narinder made his mark through his inventions. He made his millions as a business person. An early venture capital firm Draper, Gaither & Andreson, invested $5,000,000 in Optics Technology, and the business took off. Endoscopes explored human insides, as well as those of nuclear power plants.

Metropolis Narinder S. Kapany, 1971, Fiber-optics, lucite and brass Metropolis Narinder S. Kapany, 1971, Fiber-optics, lucite and brass

Optics Technology went public in 1967, and he sold his share in it in 1973, after 13 years as President. Differences with Tom Perkins, the company’s marketing director and later founder of the famous venture firm, Kleiner Perkins, and the board contributed to his exit.

Dynoptic sculptures 

Media coverage of the exhibitions of “Dynoptic Sculptures” Media coverage of the exhibitions of “Dynoptic Sculptures”

Narinder was already on to another venture — exploring fibre optics as a mode of expression. He created sculptures for himself. However, he was ‘discovered’ by the founder-director of San Francisco Exploratorium, Frank Oppenheimer, who, it turns out, was the brother of Robert, the father of the Atom Bomb. The exhibition of Narinder’s “dynoptic” sculptures in 1972 was quite a success. For the artist in him, the fact that it followed an exhibition of the works of his childhood hero, Leonardo da Vinci, was of major significance.

He worked closely with the US government and interacted with US Presidents. He was so familiar with the corridors of power that in 1973 he almost became the second-in-command to the then-incoming US Ambassador to India, Daniel P. Moynihan.

He later founded Kaptron, “a tiny, one-horse research company” into a powerhouse of products and patents. Canada’s Crown Life Insurance Company bought it, with the proviso that Narinder stay on to run it. They invested in it, got it new and better office space, and the company flourished so much that Corning became interested in acquiring it. Later, they exited and another company, AMP Inc, bought Kaptron, with Narinder running the research activities of the bigger company.

Giving back 

Narinder was Regents Professor at the University of California Santa Cruz from 1977 to 1983. He worked with Robert Sinsheimer, the pioneering biologist and Chancellor, to set up the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneur Development. It is a comprehensive reality-based and-driven educational programme for men and women seeking to become entrepreneurs. Later, he established two endowed chairs: the Narinder Singh Kapany Chair in Optoelectronics in the Baskin School of Engineering in 1999 and the Narinder Kapany Professor in Entrepreneurship in 2012. He was a trustee of the UC Santa Cruz Foundation.

Satinder and he often visited his family, primarily settled down near Dehradun. He even built a new home on the land that his father had earmarked for him and gave it to his parents. “In the early to mid-1960s through the 80s in particular, we had just the best parties, Satinder and I would arrive from California and others—brothers and sisters, cousins and grandchildren nieces and nephews, all manner of in-laws—from next door to wherever in the world they were living at that moment, and we would all rendezvous at the new house with my parents.”

Dark clouds lurked, however. Narinder lost his mother on October 31, 1984. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated that day, and a curfew was imposed in India. He writes: “As the result of my activism, I wasn’t allowed back into the country for my mother’s funeral, curfew or not. An influential member of the community by dint of her own good work and by those of my father, because of the curfew, my mother was not afforded the ceremonial remembrance she deserved. Thousands of people who might ordinarily have come to say their farewells were prevented from doing so. Instead, my brother Jat had to arrange an anonymous truck to pick up my mother’s body and carry it and a few close relatives to the crematorium for her cremation.”

Later, in honour of his mother, he endowed the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh and Punjab Studies at UC Santa Barbara in 1998.

His father lived for another seven years and passed on in 1991 at 94, when Narinder was in Tokyo, on his way to India. In 2017, Narinder established the Sundar Singh Kapany Book Collection and the Sundar Singh Kapany Group Study Room in the University Library at the University of California Santa Cruz in honour of his father.

Gurdwara and farms

Yuba City in California has had a significant Sikh presence for a long time. Narinder’s role in establishing the first gurdwara there in 1969, the year Sikhs worldwide celebrated the quincentenary of Guru Nanak Dev’s birth, reminds us of his rich ties to the Sikh community.

The interaction with Sikh farmers of California triggered a desire for farms, and Narinder, in time, owned several. His most substantial, and by most measures most profitable, venture into farming was the purchase of 3,000 acres of old wine grapes in the Central Valley near Fresno. His partners and he had surveyed the tract aerially, but later it turned out that what they had seen was a wrong farm.

When they won the bid for this farm, and it turned out that they had bought land on which the wines were not in particularly good shape. However, there were functioning oil wells on the land, too. The mineral rights that came with the property extended to an additional 7,000 acres. Narinder and three partners recouped their investment in two years and sold it off profitably later. They kept their mineral rights and have received royalty checks since.

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