Monday, November 30, 2020

Obituary F C Kohli (1924-2020)

 

Frontiersman

F C Kohli (March 19, 1924-Nov 26, 2020)
Photo Credit: Palashranjan Bhaumick

(Excerpts of this obituary appeared in Business India magazine Nov 30-Dec 13, 2020)

(Rediff.com is publishing this obituary tribute in instalments: 1) https://www.rediff.com/business/special/fc-kohli-the-visionary-who-made-indian-it-industry-global/20201202.htm )

Faqir Chand Kohli was a frontiersman literally and metaphorically.

He was born as the youngest son of Gobindram Kohli and Bhagwanti Devi on March 19, 1924 in Peshawar, North West Frontier Province of undivided India (now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan) . Gobindram Kohli was a self made businessman who started small and grew a prosperous drapery and clothing business, "Kriparam Drapers" in Peshawar Cantonment that became the most reputed and sought after firm in North India for various types of European clothing. It had a large clientele consisting of officers of the British military and Civil Services as well as Indian elite.

His eldest brother Devraj Kohli mentored him and encouraged him to take academics seriously. When Kohli topped his Matriculation from the NWFP his brother pushed him to join Government College, Lahore, then a cradle of higher education in North India. The alumni list of Government College Lahore reads like the "who's who" of the Indian subcontinent of 20th century in films, literature, politics, military as well as in civil services.

 On graduating from college in flying colours with a BA and a BSc (honours) in Physics in 1944, Kohli was distraught because he had just lost his father during exams. Disturbed, he toyed with joining the Indian Navy as an Officer and after few months of training at Nowgong Cantonment near Jhansi and passing all the exams, had second thoughts when he was chosen by the Government of North West Frontier Province for a scholarship to study Engineering at the Queens University, Kingston, Canada. Kohli chose Electrical Engineering at Queens and after BS had a short stint at General Electric, Canada.

He was keen to get a masters in Power Engineering so took permission from the Government of India and stayed back. He self financed his study at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts for a Masters in Power Engineering. There he was also exposed to the new fangled subject of System Engineering which grew during WWII. MIT was a pioneer in introducing a course at MS level in System Engineering and Control Systems. Knowledge hungry Kohli took full advantage.

This early exposure to System Engineering at MIT had a far reaching influence on Kohli's thinking in the rest of his engineering career.

On completing his masters at MIT, he was surprised to find a suggestion by Indian Government representatives in US to consider joining Tata Electric Companies which was a private sector company that had pioneered electricity generation, transmission and distribution in Bombay, Pune, and surrounding cities of Thane, Kalyan etc.

He accepted the suggestion though he did not know much about Tata Group at that time and joined Ebasco International, in New York. Ebasco were then a leading consulting company for power projects in North and South America and were also technical Managing Agents for Tata Electric Companies at Bombay. He had intensive practical training with them in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts etc. before leaving for India in 1951.

While he was pursuing higher education in North America his family had lost all their property and business during partition and had moved to Lucknow and Delhi. The mayhem and anarchy of partition shocked him and hurt him deeply since he had seen a different peaceful coexistence and friendship between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims both at Peshawar and Lahore all his life till he left for North America in 1944.

But the Kohlis were a forward looking family without wasting energy in anger, self pity and nostalgia. He took heart from the positive attitude of his mother and elder brother and mentor and plunged himself in the new life at Tata Electric Companies, Mumbai. He spent long hours at Kalyan, Khopoli, Lonavala, Parel, Dharavi learning all about the hydroelectric generating stations, load dispatch centre, receiving stations and at the head office in Bombay House near today's Hutatma Chowk in south Mumbai. He was given the task by engineers at Ebasco International stationed at Mumbai to modernise Load Dispatch after learning everything about the entire generation, transmission and distribution system as well as the practices at Tata Electric.

He did an admirable job of it and the proof of the pudding is in the high quality (stable voltage and fixed frequency) of uninterrupted power that Mumbai City gets for the last five  decades or more. It has been rated by many power aficionados as equal to or better than that of New York City.

Tata Electric was already a tech savy company before Kohli entered it. For example when North America was using 64 KV transmission lines Tata Electric was using 110 KV and General Electric had to manufacture appropriate circuit breakers specially for Tata Electric and so on.

While at Tata Electric, in the '50s Kohli was introduced to another power engineer and passionate educationist, P K Kelkar. Kelkar was then the principal of VJTI, the top engineering college in Mumbai. Kohli immediately involved himself in engineering education which lasted his lifetime. He pioneered the first course in System Engineering and Control Systems at VJTI at MTech level in 1956 lecturing there during the weekend. Kelkar and Kohli's friendship evolved and when Kelkar was called upon by the Government of India to first establish Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and later Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; Kohli was enthusiastically by Kelkar's side and actively scouted abroad recruits to the faculty of electrical engineering both at IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur. 

It is well known that IITs have played a major role in the IT revolution in India as well as in the Silicon Valley. Indeed many engineers that joined Kohli at TCS later in the 70s were IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur products and so also were N R Narayanamurthy and Nandan Nilekani who founded Infosys in the 80s. 

As engineering education and Computer Science proliferated in the last 30 years the the quantitative out put was explosive but the quality of graduates left much to be desired. Kohli and his team at TCS hence broadedend their interaction from IITs and IIMs to over 200 engineering colleges and involved themselves in faculty development, curriculum modernisation, R&D collaboration and sponsorship etc. etc. Some cynics might call this mere supply chain management but the concrete impact of the Academic Interaction Program of TCS has been salutory on engineering education.

While still at Tata Electric, knowledge hungry Kohli enroled himself for a course at IITK for computer programming in 1962 when IITK acquired its first IBM 1620 computer. Later in 1964 when TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), Mumbai brought in a CDC 3600 mainframe computer as a central computing facility not only for its scientists but also for outside users as a time sharing facility, Kohli enroled many of his colleagues from Tata Electric for courses in programming at TIFR. Between 1964 and 1966, Tata Eletcric became the biggest single user of the main frame computer at TIFR for all its needs consuming as much as 25% of Computer time. In 1966 Tata Electric persuaded the Central Water and Power Commission to allow it to import a PDP-11 computer exclusively for its own use and became the first company in Asia and only the third in the world to use a digital computer for Load Dispatch and other network management issues. 

After having studied the issues regarding power transmission in Mumbai and India he wrote a technical paper in 1961 in IEEE Journal, recommending that in order to build a national power grid the government should invest in 400KV or 500KV transmission lines to achieve maximum efficiency and economy. The result is what we see today as PGCIL (Power Grid Corporation of India).

Till recently seeing the problems in Indian power sector and especially the enormous wastage in transmission and distribution losses he mooted time and again that nation's top power engineering academics at IITs, IISc etc should setup a consulting group to help the state and central organisations in the power sector. He kept in touch with bright IIT faculty in the subject even in his 90s.

Thus the frontiersman remained at the frontier of power engineering.

Kohli also pushed for the creation of a community of engineers to solve both technical and societal problems. He actively associated himself with the largest and the most prestigious such organisation of professional engineers in the world, IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which has today nearly 500,000 members worldwide. He worked tirelessly to expand IEEE activities and membership in India. This helped Indian engineers and engineering students and faculty enter the global arena on equal intellectual footing with their global peers. IEEE honoured him with its prestigious Founders Medal in 2012. The first Indian to be thus honoured.

After seeing Kohli's pioneering adoption of computers to power engineering, J R D Tata, Nani Palkhivala and P M Agrawala invited Kohli to join the fledgling TCS in 1969.

One should appreciate the sagacity and audacity of JRD and Palkhivala in founding TCS as a division of Tata Sons on April 1, 1968. At that time there was no Microsoft or Intel, SAP or Accenture, much less Google et al. Hewlett Packard whose evolution near Palo Alto, California seeded the birth of the Silicon Valley, was then a lab equipment making company producing oscilloscopes and oscillators. 

In this situation the founders of TCS were dreaming of bringing the benefits of Computers, to Indian society and economy. They wanted TCS to develop applications using the computers made by a handful of companies viz IBM, Digital Equipment, Burroughs and ICL (UK).

JRD and Palkhivala were business visionaries but not techies. They needed a person who could build and execute their vision: a frontiersman; a problem solver and an institution builder.

It was their and India's good fortune that Faqir Chand Kohli more than measured up to their requirements and indeed laid the foundation to take TCS to unimaginable heights and to the giant success that it is today. In that process he helped create the technique, the systems, human resources and the ecosystem of a whole Industry that has caught the rest of the nations by surprise and admiration and envy.

Today in the world of global business India is a synonym for IT services. Indian IT industry is nearing $200 billion in size and it is Indian IT services exports that are virtually financing our growing oil and other imports.

By far the biggest achievement of Kohli has been the building of TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) which is today neck and neck with Accenture and the fabled IBM in terms of number of engineers working in it (nearly half a million) as well as in market valuation. TCS is the unrivalled Jewel in the Crown of Tata Group.

However when Kohli took over TCS, it had completed one year with not much to show. It had a dozen consultants and had made a loss of a few lakhs.  Clearly there were not many takers for computer services in India in 1968-69. According to an apocryphal story of that period, when Kohli first entered TCS he did not find his colleagues in the office at Nariman Point. Puzzled but shrewd Kohli went outside a popular movie theatre opposite Churchgate station at Matinee timings and lo and behold he saw the entire consulting staff emerging from it after the show !

From those early days in 1969, brick by brick Kohli built a team of techies; recruited bright engineers, Chartered Accountants, science and math postgraduates, as a matter of fact anyone who looked smart and hard working enough to his sharp gaze. Then he went looking for prospective clients in Mumbai and rest of India: telephone companies looking for a better Directory; Universities looking for faster exam results and mark sheets; utilities struggling with billing their thousands of consumers; banks and insurance companies struggling to manage their ledgers and reconciliation; anyone looking for help in accounting and payroll etc etc. He used a couple of ICL machines which were already in Tata fold. As work started flowing in, TCS needed the newer and more powerful machines.

At that time IBM was already entrenched in India selling and leasing their machines to academia and government, shrewd Kohli looked for a new partner and he found it in Burroughs which at that time had no presence in India and also had a technically better machine than IBM and was looking to expand. The first obstacle he found was the forex starved government trying to recover from 50% devaluation of Indian rupee vis a vis dollar at World Bank's behest in 1966-67 and per force did not encourage anyone importing expensive computers.

After intensive lobbying the government provisionally approved Kohli's request provided TCS earned more foreign exchange than what it paid to import the computer. Thus started TCS' outward journey, while keeping its feet firmly on Indian ground.

Kohli started scouting the world market in developed and developing countries charming his way into senior executives' offices flashing his MIT and IEEE credentials, trying to convince them that his team of bright engineers and programmers in India could help their businesses achieve better efficiency using computers. And if they are already using computers then TCS could write new software solutions or fix problems in old ones etc etc.

If the client preferred to see TCS in action in front of his eyes then Kohli was ready to send his best and brightest abroad to client sites and if he could charm them to agree to outsource the project to India with a guarantee of satisfactory completion, in time and within budget, thereby cutting costs to both parties then all the better and so on.

 The recession hit global companies after the OPEC oil shock in 1973 started trusting him and TCS team stood and delivered to the delight of clients. Immediately Kohli sent S Mahalingam to establish TCS in UK and S Ramadorai to establish TCS in North America. It was through slow, painstaking and relentless work that Kohli and his bright team started getting client recognition and projects. It was high quality work at much lower cost than before thereby not only warming the cockles of the hearts of clients' IT departments but more importantly their CFOs.

 How did Kohli go about solving the problem of large project execution or scaling up business ? Here he ingeniously applied his knowledge of System Engineering gained at MIT two decades earlier. He realised that programming was an essentially artisan like activity. Each programmer had his own logic and way of devising the solution, it was not a team effort, it could not be replicated and it could not even be fixed or improved by a different person.

So the challenge was to industrialise software development. It involved setting up programming standards, quality standards, modular architecture, breaking the problem into components that could be developed by several people simultaneously, readymade libraries of software components, automating some aspects of software development and maintenance and so on and so forth. This later came to be known as software engineering.

Extending the lessons of 300 year old manufacturing; amply demonstrated by Henry Ford's assembly line and Toyota's Just in Time and distributed manufacturing and co-engineering etc to software development, Kohli and his able team of lieutenants rubbed shoulders with global giants like IBM and showed their mettle in setting up the entire ecosystem in house. 

 This created a phalanx of able software architects, project managers, performance engineers, quality experts, people managers inside TCS. It also created a couple of hundred  confident IT leaders within TCS. Soon others outside TCS started following similar methodology and Indian IT started becoming a phenomenon. The sheer number of TCSers who went on to found new IT companies or who became CEOs, COOs and CTOs as well as middle level project managers in other IT companies shows that Kohli not only built TCS but the human resources created by him also helped create a whole industry.

Today every IT company of the world wants to hire Indian talent not because of labour arbitrage but because of the unparalleled quantity and quality of software engineering talent. In a way what Kohli and TCS innovated and which Indian IT industry adopted has been a disruptive business innovation in Global IT. The late Clayton Christensen who coined the term "disruptive innovation" at Harvard Business School much later would certainly nod his admiration and approval from the heavens.

In the last two decades China opened up its doors to TCS and other Indian IT companies and rolled out the red carpet, precisely to learn from them and get their Chinese software engineers trained. The author was eye witness to Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao admitting as much when he visited TCS office in Bengaluru in April 2005.

Interestingly Kohli not only learnt certain concepts from manufacturing and brought them into IT services but also firmly believed that manufacturing will be further revolutionised by IT. Hence when JRD, Palkhivala and Kohli decided to establish an R&D centre for TCS in 1981 they wanted it to be different from the existing R&D centres in the public or private sectors. Tata Research Design & Development Centre (TRDDC) which was thus established at Pune, had not only a software engineering group headed by Kesav Nori, but the over all director was E C Subbarao a renowned material scientist. Thus Kohli encouraged research and development into manufacturing, material science side by side with software engineering. TRDDC came up with several innovations in Tata Steel, Hindustan Zinc, Hindustan Copper and the cement industry besides a veritable arsenal of software tools that were the envy of IT pioneers like IBM.

 This work to lay the foundation of Indian IT services took TCS about 25 years. Then in the early nineties Kohli spotted a once in a lifetime opportunity; the impending Y2K problem for global users  of computers. All major computer users: Air Lines, Utilities, Banks, stock exchanges, global corporations etc etc wanted to make sure that all their computer software will continue to work as before when the clock struck 12:00:01  am on 1st Jan 2000. There were fears that the computers would go to potentially disastrous 1 Jan 00 and not 1 Jan 2000. To be hundred percent sure of smooth business continuity billions of lines of computer programs had to be checked. And that too well in advance of the beginning of the new millennium.

Many business historians have noted that correcting this code led to spurt in TCS revenue and also of other Indian IT companies big and small. But few know that TCS alone processed over 700 million lines of code in 2-3 years that is almost 30% of global code. However the secret of TCS success in this too is due to ingenious System Engineering and Software Engineering that Kohli and his proteges S Ramadorai, S Mahalingam and R&D head Kesav Nori applied to the problem.

TCS developed software tools that scanned any program that was fed to them, automatically found where the date field appeared and changed it to four digits while making sure of the integrity of the rest of software so that after 1999 which appeared in the old code as 99 it would not become 00 but correctly 2000. Equipped with such in house software automation tools developed by the team at TRDDC (Tata Research Design and Development Centre), their R&D centre at Pune, they set up a Software Factory in Chennai and achieved to the clients' satisfaction what looked unachievable.

 In the bargain they had gone into the heart of all the critical systems of most of Fortune 500 companies. So when the Y2K problem was fixed they went back and proposed other improvements in clients' software whose innards were already known to them ! TCS never looked back from there and within 3 years, in 2003 hit a $1 billion in revenue. The first Indian IT company to do so.

All along, while earning dollar revenues Kohli and S Ramadorai and N Chandrasekharan who followed Kohli as CEOs never took their eyes off the original intent of founders, JRD and Palkhivala, viz modernise Indian economy and society using computers.

Though there was hardly any money to be made in IT projects in India, TCS trudged through government bureaucracy and misplaced political fear of unemployment to build Digital India. Today if India's banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges, depositories, commodity markets, forex markets, manufacturing, small and medium businesses, government to citizen services etc etc are enviably digital, compared to many other advanced countries, then the nation owes a lot to Kohli and the engineers he mentored like Ramadorai and Chandrasekharan.

This was socially responsible policy but also a brilliant business strategy.

Digitising India even at the cost of some profits not only made many aspects of Indian life jump straight from the 19th to the 21st century but also gave the experience to TCS of building large and complex digital systems from the bottoms up. This gave them much needed testimonials to bid for complex international projects and win them against the stiffest competition.

For example if you have successfully built the core banking system for the State Bank of India with more than 400 million accounts and 14000 branches, at times located in totally inadequate rural surroundings with highly challenged power and telecom infrastructure,  then you can surely build one for any other foreign bank? After all the entire population of US is less than 400 million and the largest bank in the world the Citi group has less than 3000 branches ! Today TCS is a veritable powerhouse in global banking, insurance and financial services.

When Kohli had to step down as CEO of TCS and assume the non executive role of Vice Chairman in 1995-96 he also set an example of smooth methodical succession planning. A feature absent in many Indian companies. Thus in its 52 years of history TCS has had less than 5 CEOs including the founding P M Agrawala.

Kohli evaluated about half a dozen prospective candidates who could take his place. He  methodically graded their abilities in various aspects of leadership and then armed with objective, quantitative notes chose S Ramadorai as the next CEO. He also called the others individually and showed them their scores and why they lost out so that there could be no room for rancour or allegations of favouritism and arbitrariness. He wished that they continue in TCS and help Ramadorai as able support but when someone expressed their wish to leave for better leadership opportunities elsewhere, he regretfully let them go while wishing them well.

In the year 1999 Kohli formally retired from TCS. But not from mentoring and problem solving not only for the Tatas but also for the nation. Many professionals from diverse fields and companies including the current chairman of Tata Sons, N Chandrasekharan have publicly acknowledged how they benefitted from his mentoring.

One of his passions was to remove the scourge of illiteracy from India in a short period of time. he applied himself to the problem and using the assistance of P N Murthy and Kesav Nori came out with a brilliant solution that could teach any adult to read any language with just 40 hours of instruction using the most elementary discarded second hand PC. This software which was called CBFL (Computer Based Functional Literacy) demonstrated its usefulness when it was used in several districts of India by enthusiastic District Collectors to make hundreds of thousands of adults functionally literate. 

It so impressed the visiting First Lady of South Africa that she requested TCS to adapt it to teach some of the less spoken languages in South Africa and the TCS team happily obliged. Kohli and TCS have given the software away free. However it's sad that the bureaucrats in the government of India are yet to recognise its revolutionary potential and adopt it to make India fully functionally literate in less than 5 years.

At the turn of the century, some politicians started calling India pompously an ‘IT Superpower’. However the man who started it all was far removed from such empty pomposity. He weighed his words and actions alike.

He patiently advocated in all forums that India cannot be a significant player on the global technology map without a developed hardware industry. India missed the micro chip revolution mainly due to autarkic policies of the government in the 60s and 70s. Later the global chip industry evolved into a design and testing segment and a chip fabrication segment. Kohli advocated developing appropriate courses in IITs and other engineering colleges to develop the human resources for high-end chip design and testing which actually constitutes about 80% of value. As a result India has become home to a thriving chip design and testing industry.

A passion for Kohli has been improving the standards of engineering education. Twenty five years ago, in the mid '90s he started advocating that a handful of IITs are insufficient and at least 50 existing engineering colleges in India have the potential to reach the IIT standards if appropriate investments are made and guidance provided . Though the Government of India ignored his far reaching proposal, he was tasked by the Government of Maharashtra to identify such colleges in Maharashtra and put in motion a plan to upgrade them to IIT standards.

A committee headed by Kohli identified four such colleges for upgradation. He then took up the challenge, coming up with a gap analysis report and also engaged himself as an active chairman of the board to raise the standard of College of Engineering at Pune, a 150 year old institution, an alma mater of such illustrious names like M Visvesvaraya, C K N Patel, Thomas Kailath, Hatim Tyabji et al. but which had since then gone downhill.

He gave them a systematic road map, handpicked Anil Sahasrabuddhe from IIT Guwahati as director (currently Chairman AICTE) mentored them step by step to achieve parity with IITs in undergraduate and post graduate engineering education in about 5 years time.

Kohli was not content with the state of Digital India, though it has developed spectacularly in the last two decades. He persistently advocated focused efforts to develop Indic Computing so that over the 90% of India’s population which does not know English and carries out its business in Indian languages would then cross the digital divide. “And then you will see a genuine digital revolution”, he often said.

Kohli was unafraid to be contrarian. For example when much dust was raised over organized retail of both Indian and foreign pedigree, as possibly threatening the livelihood of small businesses and especially retailers; he advocated the development of appropriate IT tools to help small businessmen and traders. Combining affordable IT with their native ingenuity and entrepreneurship he believed would enable Indian small businesses match anyone and thrive.

This was typical of Kohli, when faced with a problem he never regressed into defensive strategies nor engaged in empty bravado but advocated appropriate technological and societal solutions.

It is difficult to capture such a  visionary and leader in a few pages in an obit. It suffices to recall that he worked in TCS office on the 11th floor of Air India building at Nariman Point till March 16, 2020 and then he left to celebrate his 96th birthday with his family.

Then came the lockdown due to Covid pandemic and he was forced to confine himself to his flat nearby. I suspect the restrictions and not being able to go to his office and work pulled him down more than aging. I was sure that this Karmayogi would be a centurian like another engineer Bharat Ratna, M Visvesvaraya.

In Kohli's passing away India has lost a visionary and a nation builder. Our deepest condolences to his family and an army of colleagues and admirers.

Shivanand Kanavi

(Author is former VP TCS, author and Business Journalist)

 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Missed Physics Nobel 2009: Narinder Singh Kapany










How India missed another Nobel Prize 
October 08, 2009 
Shivanand Kanavi reveals how Narinder Kapany, the Father of Fibre Optics, missed out on a Nobel Prize this year. 

First, it was Jagadish Chandra Bose at the turn of the century, who was the first to demonstrate wireless signaling in 1895. Later, he even created a radio wave receiver called the 'coherer' from iron and mercury. Though he showed no interest in patenting it, Bose demonstrated his inventions in Kolkata and London Sir Neville Mott, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978, in fact commented that Bose had foreseen the 'n' and 'p' type semiconductors, and was 'sixty years ahead of his time.' However, the Nobel Prize in Physics for wireless communication was awarded to Guglielmo Marconi in 1909, 14 years after Bose had demonstrated the possibility. Then came Satyendranath Bose, who sent a paper on the statistics of quanta of light–photons to Albert Einstein. Einstein supported the paper and got it published in Zeitschrift der Physik in 1924, and that in turn gave birth to the now famous Bose-Einstein statistics and the term 'Bosons' for all those elementary particles that follow it. Even though three Nobel Prizes have been awarded for works based on Bose statistics, the originator of the idea was never awarded one. Moving on, G N Ramachandran deserved a Nobel for his work on bio-molecular structures in general and, more particularly, the triple helical structure of collagen. E C George Sudarshan produced pioneering contributions to Quantum Optics and coherence, but his work was ignored, and Roy Glauber was awarded the Physics Nobel in 2005 for the same work. And so to this week: The press release issued by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on the Nobel Prize for Physics for 2009 says 'one half' of the prize has been awarded to Charles K Kao 'for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.' 

 








What the Academy omitted to note was that Moga, Punjab-born Narinder Singh Kapany, widely considered the Father of Fibre Optics, and, in this capacity, featured in a 1999 Fortune magazine article on the 'Unsung Heroes of the 20th Century', had far the stronger claim. 
 Charles Kao in a 1996 paper put forward the idea of using glass fibres for communication using light; he tirelessly evangelised it and fully deserves a share of the Prize. 
However, the fact remains that it was Kapany who first demonstrated successfully that light can be transmitted through bent glass fibres during his doctoral work at the Imperial College of Science in London in the early fifties, and published the findings in a paper in Nature in 1954. 
 Since then, Kapany tirelessly developed applications of fibre optics for endoscopy during the fifties and later coined the term Fibre Optics in an article in Scientific American in 1960. His body of work provided the basis for the developments of any and all applications in communications. 
 In a book published in 2007 by Rupa & Co titled Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology, I had written of the respective contributions of Kapany and Kao to the field of Fiber Optics. A relevant excerpt (pages: 154-159): 'Very few Indians know that an Indian, Narinder Singh Kapany, a pioneer in the field, coined the term (Fibre Optics) in 1960. We will come to his story later on, but before that let us look at what fibre optics is. It all started with queries like: Can we channel light through a curved path, even though we know that light travels in a straight line?' 'Why is that important? Well, suppose you want to examine an internal organ of the human body for diagnostic or surgical purposes. You would need a flexible pipe carrying light. Similarly, if you want to communicate by using light signals, you cannot send light through the air for long distances; you need a flexible cable carrying light over such distances.' 
 'The periscopes we made as class projects when we were in school, using cardboard tubes and pieces of mirror, are actually devices to bend light. Bending light at right angles as in a periscope was simple. Bending light along a smooth curve is not so easy. But it can be done, and that is what is done in optic fibre cables.' 
 'For centuries people have built canals or viaducts to direct water for irrigation or domestic use. These channels achieve maximum effect if the walls or embankments do not leak.' 'Similarly, if we have a pipe whose insides are coated with a reflecting material, then photons or waves can be directed along easily without getting absorbed by the wall material.' 
 'A light wave gets reflected millions of times inside such a pipe (the number depending on the length and diameter of the pipe and the narrowness of the light beam).' 
 'This creates the biggest problem for pipes carrying light. Even if we can get coatings with 99.99 per cent reflectivity, the tiny 'leakage' of 0.01 per cent on each reflection can result in a near-zero signal after 10,000 reflections.' 
 'Here a phenomenon called total internal reflection comes to the rescue. If we send a light beam from water into air, it behaves peculiarly as we increase the angle between the incident ray and the perpendicular.' 
 'We reach a point when any increase in the angle of incidence results in the light not leaving the water and, instead, getting reflected back entirely. This phenomenon is called total internal reflection.' 
 'Any surface, however finely polished, absorbs some light, and hence repeated reflections weaken a beam.' 'But total internal reflection is a hundred per cent, which means that if we make a piece of glass as non-absorbent as possible, and if we use total internal reflection, we can carry a beam of light over long distances inside a strand of glass.' 
 'This is the principle used in fibre optics.' 'The idea is not new. In the 1840s, Swiss physicist Daniel Collandon and French physicist Jacques Babinet showed that light could be guided along jets of water.' 'British physicist John Tyndall popularised the idea further through his public demonstrations in 1854, guiding light in a jet of water flowing from a tank.' 
 'Since then this method has been commonly used in water fountains. If we keep sources of light that change their colour periodically at the fountainhead, it appears as if differently coloured water is springing out of the fountain.'
 'Later many scientists conceived of bent quartz rods carrying light, and even patented some of these inventions. But it took a long time for these ideas to be converted into commercially viable products. One of the main hurdles was the considerable absorption of light inside glass rods.' 

 'Narinder Singh Kapany recounted to the author, "When I was a high school student at Dehradun in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, it occurred to me that light need not travel in a straight line, that it could be bent. I carried the idea to college. Actually it was not an idea but the statement of a problem. When I worked in the ordnance factory in Dehradun after my graduation, I tried using right-angled prisms to bend light.' 'However, when I went to London to study at the Imperial College and started working on my thesis, my advisor, Dr Hopkins, suggested that I try glass cylinders instead of prisms. So I thought of a bundle of thin glass fibres, which could be bent easily. Initially my primary interest was to use them in medical instruments for looking inside the human body. The broad potential of optic fibres did not dawn on me till 1955. It was then that I coined the term fibre optics."' 

 'Kapany and others were trying to use a glass fibre as a light pipe or, technically speaking, a 'dielectric wave guide'. But drawing a fibre of optical quality, free from impurities, was not an easy job. Kapany went to the Pilkington Glass Company, which manufactured glass fibre for non-optical purposes. For the company, the optical quality of the glass was not important.' '"I took some optical glass and requested them to draw fiber from that," says Kapany. "I also told them that I was going to use it to transmit light. They were perplexed, but humoured me."' 
 'A few months later Pilkington sent spools of fibre made of green glass, which is used to make beer bottles. "They had ignored the optical glass I had given them. I spent months making bundles of fibre from what they had supplied and trying to transmit light through them, but no light came out. That was because it was not optical glass. So I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and then use a bright carbon arc source."' 
 'Kapany was confronted with another problem. A naked glass fibre did not guide the light well. Due to surface defects, more light was leaking out than he had expected. To transmit a large image he would have needed a bundle of fibres containing several hundred strands; but contact between adjacent fibers led to loss of image resolution.' 'Several people then suggested the idea of cladding the fibre. Cladding, when made of glass of a lower refractive index than the core, reduced leakages and also prevented damage to the core. 

Finally, Kapany was successful; he and Hopkins published the results in 1954 in the British journal Nature.' 'Kapany then migrated to the US and worked further in fibre optics while teaching at Rochester and the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1960, with the invention of lasers, a new chapter opened in applied physics. From 1955 to 1965 Kapany was the lead author of dozens of technical and popular papers on the subject. His writings spread the gospel of fibre optics, casting him as a pioneer in the field.' 'His popular article on fibre optics in Scientific American in 1960 finally established the new term (fibre optics); the article constitutes a reference point for the subject even today. 
In November 1999, Fortune magazine published profiles of seven people who have greatly influenced life in the twentieth century but are unsung heroes. Kapany was one of them.' 
 'If we go back into the history of modern communications involving electrical impulses, we find that Alexander Graham Bell patented an optical telephone system in 1880. He called this a 'photophone'. Bell converted speech into electrical impulses, which he converted into light flashes.' 'A photosensitive receiver converted the signals back into electrical impulses, which were then converted into speech. But the atmosphere does not transmit light as reliably as wires do; there is heavy atmospheric absorption, which can get worse with fog, rain and other impediments.' 'As there were no strong and directional light sources like lasers at that time, optical communications went into hibernation. Bell's earlier invention, the telephone, proved far more practical. If Bell yearned to send signals through the air, far ahead of his time, we cannot blame him; after all, it's such a pain digging and laying cables.' 
 'In the 1950s, as telephone networks spread, telecommunications engineers sought more transmission bandwidth. Light, as a carrying medium, promised the maximum bandwidth. Naturally, optic fibres attracted attention. But the loss of intensity of the signal was as high as a decibel per metre.'
 'This was fine for looking inside the body, but communications operated over much longer distances and could not tolerate losses of more than ten to twenty decibels per kilometre. 
Now what do decibels have to do with it? Why is signal loss per kilometre measured in decibels?' 'The human ear is sensitive to sound on a logarithmic scale; that is why the decibel scale came into being in audio engineering, in the first place.' 
 'If a signal gets reduced to half its strength over one kilometre because of absorption, after two kilometres it will become a fourth of its original strength. That is why communication engineers use the decibel scale to describe signal attenuation in cables.' 'In the early 1960s signal loss in glass fiber was one decibel per metre, which meant that after traversing ten metres of the fiber the signal was reduced to a tenth of its original strength.' 'After twenty metres the signal was a mere hundredth its original strength. As you can imagine, after traversing a kilometre no perceptible signal was left.' 

'A small team at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the UK was not put off by this drawback. This group was headed by Antoni Karbowiak, and later by a young Shanghai-born engineer, Charles Kao.' 'Kao studied the problem carefully and worked out a proposal for long-distance communications through glass fibres. He presented a paper at a London meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1966, pointing out that the optic fibre of those days had an information-carrying capacity of one GHz, or an equivalent of 200 TV channels, or more than 200,000 telephone channels.' 

'Although the best available low-loss material then showed a loss of about 1,000 decibels/kilometre (dB/km), he claimed that materials with losses of just 10 to 20 dB/km would eventually be developed.' 'With Kao almost evangelistically promoting the prospects of fibre communications, and the British Post Office (the forerunner to British Telecom) showing interest in developing such a network, laboratories around the world tried to make low-loss fibre. It took four years to reach Kao's goal of 20dB/km.' 'At the Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc), Robert Maurer, Donald Keck and Peter Schultz used fused silica to achieve the feat. The Corning breakthrough opened the door to fibre-optic communications. In the same year, Bell Labs and a team at the Ioffe Physical Institute in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) made the first semiconductor lasers, able to emit a continuous wave at room temperature.' 'Over the next several years, fibre losses dropped dramatically, aided by improved fabrication methods and by the shift to longer wavelengths where fibers have inherently lower attenuation.' 
'Today's fibres are so transparent that if the Pacific Ocean, which is several kilometres deep, were to be made of this glass we could see the ocean bed!' 'Note one point here. The absorption of light in glass depends not only on the chemical composition of the glass but also on the wavelength of light that is transmitted through it. It has been found that there are three windows with very low attenuation: One is around 900 nanometres, the next at 1,300 nm and the last one at 1,550 nm.' 
 'Once engineers could develop lasers with those wavelengths, they were in business. This happened in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to Herbert Kroemer's hetero-structures and many hard-working experimentalists.' 
 The excerpt ends here. While working on this book in 2003, and particularly this chapter, I had thought that with the world now firmly ensconced in the era of communications, it wouldn't be long before Narinder Kapany's pioneering work in the field was recognised with the Nobel Prize. 
 Now, I find that the name of the pioneer of fibre optics has been added to a very long list of Indians who, though richly deserving of the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize, have been mysteriously passed over by the august members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
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