Corning’s invention of the first low-loss optical fiber featured in new Smithsonian ‘Innovation Wing’

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Smithsonian Feature

Corning’s invention of the first low-loss optical fiber featured in Smithsonian ‘Innovation Wing’

Smithsonian features Corning’s optical fiber

‘Inventing in America’ showcases advancements that changed the world

Modern life hinges on our ability to connect instantly with people and information anywhere on the planet. A single Corning invention – telecommunication-grade optical fiber – makes it all possible. The backbone of communications today, fiber carries voice, data, and video around the world, with nearly limitless capacity. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is recognizing this impact by Corning innovators in a new exhibit called “Inventing in America.” 

More than 70 objects on display in the museum’s new Innovation Wing help explore the ways key inventions influenced the past and maintain a role in the current world. Corning’s invention sits alongside Alexander Graham Bell’s experimental telephone from 1876, an Apple I computer representing the dawn of the PC era, and the first digital-camera sensor that helped launch an explosion of high-quality personal photos and videos.

“This exhibit puts Corning in great company,” John Igel, vice president and general manager, Corning Optical Fiber and Cable, said. “What’s exciting for us is that our invention is very much a living piece of history.”

"What’s exciting for us is that our invention is very much a living piece of history."

“Optical fiber didn’t just change life as we know it by improving communications and enabling the Internet. As we continue to improve it, our advancements keep fueling an ongoing revolution across medicine, communication, entertainment – and the progress of society in general.”

Corning’s artifacts are on view in a case called “The Inventors Hall of Fame.” Millions of Smithsonian visitors can view one of the first optical fiber splice boxes and an early sample reel of optical fiber. The most fun and personal element of the display is a lab notebook from Dr. Donald Keck.

Keck came to Corning in 1968 and went to work with Dr. Robert Maurer and Dr. Peter Schultz to develop an optical fiber that could be used commercially. Their goal was to successfully lower attenuation – more simply, the loss of light – in the fiber they were working on. The very best bulk optical glasses of the day had attenuations around 1,000 dB/km. Corning’s goal was to bring that all the way down to about 20 dB/km – a 1098 improvement.

Keck’s notebook includes a note written after two years working with Maurer and Schultz. The Smithsonian now features a page that forever memorializes a key breakthrough he observed one afternoon.

“I could sense a strong sense of partnership and high regard for everyone at Corning. The innovators include not only Keck, Maurer, and Schultz, but all their colleagues from Corning.”

“Whoopee!” he wrote, seeing the loss of light transmitted in their experimental fiber reach less than 20 dB/km for the very first time. The team would continue to improve on that breakthrough day in 1970, creating the first low-loss optical fiber that could transmit data in the form of light across significant distances.

“I really appreciated that Dr. Keck was so generous with his story,” said Smithsonian curator Susan Tolbert. “I could sense a strong sense of partnership and high regard for everyone at Corning. The innovators include not only Keck, Maurer, and Schultz, but all their colleagues from Corning.”

“When I first learned the Smithsonian was planning a new exhibit based on some of the inventions in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, it seemed most appropriate that Corning’s fiber optics story should be among those on display,” Keck said.

“During the early days of the optical fiber deployment, the world was well aware that Corning played a pivotal role. The current generation is much less knowledgeable about the innovations underlying their social networking capability. The Smithsonian exhibit helps keep alive the remarkable story for future generations.”