- A favorite to win the Nobel prize for fiber optics in 2009, the California-based physicist, businessman and Sikh activist was inexplicably overlooked for the coveted award.
Renowned physicist, businessman and Sikh activist Narinder Singh Kapany died on Dec. 4 in the Bay Area in California He was 94. He is survived by his son Raj Kapany, a hi-tech executive and his daughter, Kiran Kaur Kapany, an attorney and filmmaker, and their families. His wife Satinder Kaur Kapany died in 2016.
As a scientist, Kapany is widely acknowledged as the ‘father of fiber-optics.’ His research and inventions have encompassed fiber-optics communications, lasers, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring. Apart from fiber optics, he worked in fields of lasers, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring. With over 100 patents to his credit, Kapany was a member of the National Inventors Council.
According to his biography on SikhiWiki, a free Sikh encyclopedia, Kapany was born in 1927 to a Sikh family in Moga, Punjab, and later studied at Agra University. He went to England for further studies and completed his Masters in optics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and received his Ph.D. from the University of London in 1955.
“When I first started work in technology, it was in India at an ordnance factory learning how to design and manufacture optical instruments,” Kapany says in an April 9, 2011 interview on YouTube. “Then I came to the Imperial College in London primarily to learn about technology at the next level. After that I was supposed to go back to India and start my own company,” Kapany says.
As a student in London, Kapany recalls how his professor, Harold Hopkins, encouraged him to do a PhD in optics. However he was set on coming back to India after completing his Ph.D in 1955 and setting up his own venture. In fact, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, “a tremendous votary of modern science,” wanted Kapany to work for the Indian government as a scientific advisor to the Ministry of Defense.
However, a meeting with an American professor at a science conference in Italy (1954), where he presented the very first publication on fiber optics, altered the course of his life. Kapany joined the University of Rochester as a faculty member. “One year led to another which led to a job which immediately got me into entrepreneurship and instead of starting a company in India, I ended up starting my first company in this area in Palo Alto (Silicon Valley). Started in 1960, I took it public in 1967,” he says in the YouTube video.
An entrepreneur and business executive, Dr. Kapany has specialized in the processes of innovation and the management of technology and technology transfer. In 1960, he founded Optics Technology Inc. and was chairman of the board, president, and director of Research for twelve years. “In 1967 the company went public with numerous corporate acquisitions and joint-ventures in the United States and abroad,” SikhiWiki says.
In 1973, Dr. Kapany founded Kaptron Inc. and was president and CEO until 1990 when he sold the company to AMP Incorporated. For the next nine years, Dr. Kapany was an AMP Fellow, heading the Intrapreneur & Technical Expert Program and serving as chief technologist for Global Communications Business. He recently founded K2 Optronics. He has also served on the boards of various companies.
A favorite to win the Nobel prize for fiber optics in 2009, many in the scientific community were perplexed that Kapany was overlooked for the coveted award. The honor went to Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born scientist, who played an important role in inventing how to sustain light through glass fibers for long distances. “It will also remain a debatable issue why Kapany couldn’t get the Nobel prize,” the Indian Express noted in Kapany’s obituary. “It was Kapany who first demonstrated successfully that light can be transmitted through bent glass fibers 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.”
However, in an interview with India Today in 2009, Kapany said he wasn’t perturbed at being overlooked. “What can you say about this,” he said. “It is known that Prof. Kao started work in this field many years after me. He faced competition too. I don’t think there should be any controversy about it. It is up to the Swedish Academy to decide. They have used whatever criteria they wanted to use.” he said.
In a 2003 book titled “Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology,” author Shivanand Kanavi details the contribution of Kao and Kapany in the field of fiber optics. “Very few Indians know that an Indian, Narinder Singh Kapany, a pioneer in the field, coined the term (Fiber Optics) in the 1960s,” Kanavi writes.
His contributions, however, were recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which acknowledged him as the inventor of fiber optics. In 199, Fortune Magazine listed him as one of the seven “unsung heroes” whose contributions radically changed the global business landscape. “In high school, a teacher told Kapany that light could travel only in a straight line,” the magazine said. “Kapany set out to prove him wrong and wound up creating fiber optics, the technology behind devices ranging from endoscopy to high-capacity telephone lines.”
Kapany was active in academics as well. He was a Regents Professor at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). He was also director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development (CIED) at UCSC for seven years. At Stanford University, he was a Visiting Scholar in the Physics Department and Consulting Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He has published over 100 scientific papers and four books on opto-electronics and entrepreneurship. He has lectured to various national and international scientific societies.
As a philanthropist, Kapany has been active in education and the arts. He has been the founding chairman and major funder of the Sikh Foundation and its activities for over 30 years. In collaboration with international institutions and publishers, the Foundation runs programs in publishing, academia and the arts.
In 1998, he endowed a Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His gift in 1999 of $500,000 to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco helped establish a gallery in its new building displaying the works he has donated from his collection of Sikh art. In 1999, he endowed a Chair of Opto-Electronics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was also trustee of the University of California, Santa Cruz Foundation. He has served as a trustee of the Menlo School in Menlo Park, California.
An avid art collector, Kapany provided a major loan of paintings for the “Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms” exhibition in March 1999 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It proceeded to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and later opened in May 2000 for four months at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. The exhibition follows “Splendors of the Punjab: Sikh Art and Literature,”organized in 2012 by Kapany in collaboration with the Asian Art Museum and UC Berkeley to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sikh Foundation.
The physicist was also a Sikh activist and worked to preserve Sikh heritage. On Dec. 29, 1967, he and his wife Satinder Kaur founded the Sikh Foundation in California, with the mission to preserve and promote Sikh heritage.
As an artist, Kapany has created 40 “dynoptic” sculptures which were first displayed in a one-man show at the Exploratorium of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1972, according to the SikhiWiki biography. Since then, the collection has been viewed at museums and art galleries in Chicago, Monterey, Palo Alto, and Stanford.
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.