Digital technologies alongside fiber optic communication is a field in which the UK is a groundbreaker.
The history of emerging digital technologies is not usually associated with Britain. They are more associated with East Asia who inundated the market with low-priced electronics in the 80's and 90's. Or the US who gave birth to the transistor and produced hardware and software developers who have been highly influential in recent times. However, without Britain, two of the most authoritative and important technologies would not exist. These include mobile, computing and the triumph of the internet. Britain's innovations could still progress computing further and even give a greater understanding to the human brain.
The world wide web invented by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee is highly noted. But what is not as commonly known is that Britain also is the birthplace of fiber optic communications, a technology which enables transmission of vast quantities of data around the world.
Optical fiber was first developed in the 1960's by a team including a scientist named Richard Epworth. He commented that 'The web and Internet are only possible because the cost of communicating is very low, and independent of distance.' This team that made optical fiber communication into a reality did so at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories (STL).
Digital communication offered low-loss communication therefore had great potential for further research. A favourite choice for communication was optical, which was deemed perfect for digital but not for electronics. Epworth said 'if you’re transmitting digitally, the signal is either on or off, and any distortion doesn’t matter at all.” It’s exactly the same idea that makes Morse code signalling was so successful, he added; all that matters is whether there is any signal or not; and visible light Morse works at the speed of light. What fiber optics promised, he said, was simply increasing the range of the visible light Morse idea and sending it around corners, plus the increase in speed compared with electrical signalling through copper. “The invention of the laser increased interest, and transmission through free-space was studied, but it’s too affected by weather, so some sort of guide for the light was obviously needed.” however in terms of electronics, the stance was '“If you’re transmitting an analogue signal electrically, by manipulating a current along a wire, then as soon as you have any interference or loss of signal quality, you have problems; you don’t need much distortion at all before the signal becomes incomprehensible,”
In 1842, in Paris, Daniel Colodon a professor at the university of Geneva and Jacques Babinet, a specialist in optics showed that light followed the curvature of water, therefore 'bending' inside a stream of water. Using this method was used in the 1920's with glass fibers to provide dentistry with illumination and medical examinations. The technique was not heavily investigated at the beginning with Epworth stating that the glass attenuated the signal too much.
In the 60's, STL in Harlow were trying to make optical communication work, alongside other researchers. The field was an expanse to be explored and early research used a hollow air-filled tube as the medium for transmission, a 'light-pipe'. Epworth explained 'for a while it looked like the winning technique would be one using microwaves' after work involving 'planar thin-films, using optical waveguides where the majority of the signal would be outside the transmission medium.'
Charles Kuen Kao, a researcher from Hong Kong had the initial discovery whilst working with George Hockham an expert in Microwaves. Together they hypothesised visible light transmission would be suited to a purer glass than was already accessible. He recognised that the pureness of the material was the issue, not the key physics. In 2009 the couple won a share in the Nobel Prize for physics, due to their instrumental paper published over 50 years ago and was observed as the starting point of practical optical fibers.
Travelling the world to get interest within his technology, Kao didn't succeed commercially until a pure, ultra-clear silica from oxygen and elemental silicon was produced by Bell Labs. The first transmittance system between Hitchin and Stevenage was the UK's involvement in the early usage of the technology, however as this was multi-national and no commercial remainder of STL exists, the status of the innovation being from the UK has been dropped from public knowledge so Epworth believes.
Other leading digital innovations are more in the public consciousness due to commercialisation. Stephen Furber led a team who developed The RISC (reduced instruction set computing) microprocessor at ARM (Acorn RISC machines). At a time when chip-making was dominated by American powerhouse IBM, Furber spoke in 2010 to The Engineer and explained they had very rigid thoughts on how the architecture of chip should work. By not manufacturing chips themselves, the ARM team came to the conclusion they could break away from these set ideas. From this, a processor was developed that used far less power that it's competition, which meant market domination within the tablet, laptop and mobile industries. This breakthrough saw the controversial sale of ARM to Japanese firm Softbank for $42billion.
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