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The Untold Story

Alastair Cormack

City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics (Sloan Technology Series). Jeff Hecht. 336 pp. Oxford University Press, 1999. $29.95. lists half a dozen books with the title City of Light, two of which were published in the past year. If you ever wondered if titles are significant, then this book by Jeff Hecht will give you food for thought. It is not about Paris, nor is it really about fiber optics. It is about telecommunications.

Getting one's fiberClick to Enlarge Image

This is a story of the technical advances in the telecommunications industry, brought about by the continuously increasing demands for greater capacity. (How we love to talk on the phone!) A recurring theme—that photons would be better than electrons for carrying signals—appears in each new generation, but at the time, glass (the obvious material for transmitting light) could not be fashioned into wires with an acceptably low attenuation rate. Finally, as in all good stories, the hero wins, and fiber-optic cables become a technological reality.

The disappointment is that we are not told much about how continuing advances in our understanding of the science and engineering of a material, in this case glass, ultimately made it useful in applications after years of rejection. There is little or no information provided about actual developments in glass science and engineering such as improvements in processing and composition, other than to say that losses were improved. In fact, achieving the purity levels needed in silica was no mean feat; neither was the realization that purity was the key. In virtually all of its other applications (windows, wine glasses, TV tubes, flat-panel displays), glass has a rich and complex chemistry, designed to optimize its processing, as well as its properties.

Jeff Hecht has done an admirable job in delving into the personalities of many of the key contributors. The presentation has been spoiled, however, because he can't make up his mind if this is a serious, scholarly work or a contribution to popular scientific history. The endnotes are frequently useless, with countless references to telephone interviews. Statements that should be supported are not: "Management, which was growing impatient, thought it about time." This referred to the first time a laser emitted a continuous beam and the first laser to operate in a gas. Of particular annoyance is the persistent, apparently politically correct, habit of giving dimensions in both metric and imperial units. This interrupts the flow of the text considerably and is infuriating because of the lack of consistency. Sometimes the unit is metric (with the imperial equivalent in brackets), and sometimes it is the other way, even on the same page! It's a safe bet that in 1956, Bell Labs made a 2-inch (50.8-mm) waveguide, not a 50.8-mm one. In one paragraph we have, "Radio frequencies passed a billion hertz (a gigahertz)" and in the very next paragraph, only nine lines later, "operating at a few gigahertz (billion hertz)." Either the author and publisher could not decide on the intended readership, or the copy editor was out sick during the final stages of manuscript preparation. This is a real pity because it's not what one expects of the Oxford University Press and the Sloan Foundation.

To quote a reviewer on "If you like techie stuff, you'll love this book." On the other hand, if you have more serious interest in the history of the development of fiber optics (and not of technologies that use them), look elsewhere.—Alastair Cormack, Ceramic Engineering, Alfred University

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