It’s true, that when someone mentions ‘fibre optics’ you might instantly think of those tacky-but-wondrous 70s lamps, but fibre optics can give us a lot more than just a pretty light show! It was all the way back in 1854 that John Tyndall demonstrated that light could be conducted through a curved stream of water, and since then we have refined, modified and advanced that basic idea into the technology that we have today.
When scientists discovered that light could be directed down a glass rod to illuminate something it was a great breakthrough; it meant a beam of light could be used as a signal, but most scientists struggled to avoid the signal becoming weaker the further it travelled, and they battled interference from outside elements. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a German medical student managed to assemble a bundle of optical fibres so they could display an image, but the image was blurry and unclear, a far cry from what we have achieved today.
Scientists continued to experiment up until the 1970s, but all struggled to create an instrument with a small loss of light, and that meant the early inventions could not actually carry a signal very far. Everything changed in the 1970s when experiments were carried out with fused silica, a material that was ideal for the invention of fibre optic wire because it had such a low rate of refraction. Fibre optic wire was capable of carrying 65,000 times more information than copper wire, and the patterns of light it produced could be decoded over 1000 miles away! This was coupled by the incredible invention of a semiconductor diode laser that could emit continuous waves at room temperature and a process that heats chemical vapours and oxygen to produce super clear glass – inventions you need to thank for the worldwide communication capabilities of today.
With everything now working telephone companies began to install fibre optic infrastructures through the 70s and 80s, and scientists began to invent even more exciting breakthroughs that would increase the speed and data handling capabilities of these fibres.
Today we’re advancing ever more, the technology required to install fibre optics is slowly becoming cheaper, so many internet and telephone companies as starting to be able to offer fibre optic broadband in homes. Fibre optics are now used in the medical industry, Flow Optics optical transceivers, aircraft wiring, data transmission, broadcasting and more.
So next time you look at your fibre optic lamp with disdain, just remember that lamp displays the technology that has led the digital revolution and continues to improve your life on a daily basis. I believe John Tyndall would have loved a fibre optic light of his very own!