Corning Fiber Pioneer to Retire

Donald Keck, the last active inventor of low-loss optical fiber, says he's retiring at the end of the month

March 20, 2002

3 Min Read
Corning Fiber Pioneer to Retire

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- OFC -- Donald Keck, VP and director of Corning Inc.'s (NYSE: GLW) Office of Research, says he's going to retire at the end of this month. Keck will be the last of the three scientists who invented low-loss optical fiber to leave Corning.

Keck joined Corning in 1968 and worked with Peter Schultz, a materials expert, and Robert Maurer, a physicist and the research group leader. The trio worked to come up with a way to transmit information through glass fiber using light, an alternative to the copper wires that made up the world's telephone networks.

Maurer had set the group on using fused silica, which had lower attenuation than other types of glass. Later, the scientists found that coating the silica with titanium helped the glass withstand the laser's heat and added an impurity so that the fiber wouldn't absorb the light.

On a Friday afternoon, in the spring of 1970, Keck was looking into a microscope to measure how much light was lost when he aimed a laser through the core of a 200-meter strand of optical fiber. Keck had conducted the experiment using several kinds of glass fiber strands, only to have the light dissipate each time.

"I thought I would take one more measurement before leaving for the weekend," says Keck. "I looked to see if the laser was hitting the center of the fiber, and all of the sudden this bright light hit me right in the eye. The light had gone all the way through the fiber and traveled all the way back."

Keck excitedly looked around for someone to tell, but the place was empty. Keck found the lab's director of research just before he left for the weekend but found that even he did not entirely grasp what had happened. "He warned me about introducing too many impurities to the glass, which is the reason beer bottles are brown," Keck recalls [Ed. note: Not that we can blame the lab director for thinking ahead to the weekend].

Twelve years later Corning would make its first sales of optical fiber. With the commercialization of Keck's invention, the optical networking industry was born and communications changed forever. By the end of 1999, service providers around the world had installed an estimated 260 million kilometers of fiber optic cable -- about enough to stretch to the moon and back 350 times.

Now, at 61, Keck is retiring from Corning after staying on a year long than he'd intended, to help the company through its restructuring. His colleague Maurer retired from Corning in 1989, Shultz in 1984.

Keck says he'll stay professionally connected to the industry in retirement. He plans to continue his work with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where he serves as president. (Maurer, Keck, and Schultz were inducted into the Hall for developing low-loss optical fiber in 1993.) He's also helping build the Infotonic Center in upstate New York, a photonics research center for young scientists that Corning, Xerox, Kodak, and others are supporting.

Predictably, Keck isn't one of those saying that there's too much fiber in the ground now. "In the early 80s, we thought the long-haul network was completely finished," he says. "We had totally fiberized it and were looking for other markets." Of course, the Internet's commercialization changed the game then and Keck is convinced there will always be something around the corner that will use up today's dormant bandwidth.

"The question is not whether there's too much bandwidth," he says. "What matters is how efficiently we're using the bandwidth. If we can keep finding ways to deliver more and more bandwidth cost-effectively, someone will figure out how to use it."

— Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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