Narinder Kapany, father of fiber optics who bent light, passes away

RITU JHA

Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, innovator, entrepreneur, mentor, author who was widely considered the father of fiber optics, passed away at age 94 on December 3 in Woodside, California.

Dr Kapany (third from right in photograph above), who was born in India, was not only known as a great scientist but also as a patron of Sikh arts, culture and literature, a philanthropist and the founder of the Sikh Foundation in USA.

He was also the first Sikh to take his company, Optics Technology Inc, public in 1967 in the United States. In 1979, he created the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development at the University of California Santa Cruz where he also later endowed a chair in Optoelectronics.

Thomas Kailath, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, at Stanford University, told indica News that Dr Kapany was a pioneer in fiber optics, work that he started during his doctoral studies at Imperial College in London.

I first met him at a seminar at Stanford University in 1964, and we continued to meet from time to time in part because there were so few Indians in the area in those days,” Kailath said about Dr Kapany.

He was both scholarly and entrepreneurial and founded the pioneering fiber optics company, Optics Technology Inc, in 1960. It had a successful public offering in 1967, and he kindly gifted us a few shares before that event,” Kailath recalled.

Dr Kapany and his wife were determined philanthropists, Kailath said, supporting various causes including establishing three endowed chairs — two at UC Santa Cruz, in Optoelectronics and in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, and one at UC Santa Barbara in Global and Sikh Studies.

Their gift of the Kapany Collection at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco focused on Sikh Art,” Kailath said.

Indeed, he was very proud of his Sikh heritage. Narinder and my wife, Anu Maitra, became good friends as trustees of the UCSC Foundation where they both worked actively to support the South Asia programs at the university. Narinder, the man, will be sorely missed by his daughter, family, friends, and colleagues. His technological contributions have changed the world and his generosity will continue to touch many lives for many years.”

Dr Kanwaljeet S. Anand professor of pediatrics and of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at the Stanford University Medical Cener, told indica News: “It is my privilege to have known Dr Kapany for the past five years and to have nominated him for the Nobel Prize in 2020.

He was a giant among men — not only as a great scientist, a successful entrepreneur, and a generous philanthropist — but also as a mentor for legions of aspiring young people, a huge supporter of various social causes, a connoisseur of fine art, a devout practicing Sikh, as well as a loving husband, father, and grandfather,” said Dr Anand.

He said Dr Kapany had a great sense of humor and infectious laughter, an incredible curiosity and sharp intellect, and a disarming way of making other people feel comfortable in his presence.

We are all saddened by his demise, which is a huge loss for his family, but also for the Indian diaspora, the Stanford University and UC Berkeley faculty, Sikh communities in NorCal and worldwide, as well as the worlds of physics, medical science, fine art, and entrepreneurship. I hope that we can all pay homage to such a great and humble man amongst us,” Dr Anand said.

Sonia Dhami, trustee, Sikh Foundation, who used to meet Dr Kapany every week, told indica News: “He was 94, but his mind was still shaper than mine. He never aged until his wife, Satinder Kapany, passed away in 2016.”

Dhami said Dr Kapany in office the third day after his wife died.

I saw him age after she [Satinder] died, but still everyday he would think about future and new innovation,” she added.

In 1953, working alongside Harold Hopkins at the Imperial College London, Dr Kapany was the first to successfully transmit high quality images through fiber bundles. He coined the term “fiber optics” in a famous 1960 article for Scientific American.

When light is directed into one end of a glass fiber,” Dr Kapany wrote, “it will emerge at the other end. Bundles of such fibers can be used to conduct images.”

His breakthrough achievements helped create a foundational element of the Internet age, affecting the lives and businesses of everyone around the world.

Born on October 31, 1926 in the town of Moga in Punjab, Kapany grew up in the Himalayan foothill city of Dehradun and graduated in 1948 from Agra University, later receiving his doctorate from Imperial College London in 1955.

He married Satinder Kaur, and the couple soon migrated to the United States where he first worked at Rochester University and then at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

In 1961, the couple moved to Woodside where Kapany founded Optics Technology Inc successfully taking it public in 1967.

The San Francisco Examiner, in February 1969, described him as “…the most dashing corporate officer in the area.”

Subsequently, he founded Kaptron Inc in 1973, which was later acquired by AMP Inc.

In 1999, he was named one of seven ‘unsung heroes’ in Fortune magazine’s ‘Businessmen of the Century’ issue.

Dr Kapany wrote four books on fiber optics and entrepreneurship. His seminal research in fiber optics, lasers, and solar energy, and their applications in bio-medical instruments, defense, communications, and pollution-monitoring earned him more than 100 patents.

In 1979, he created the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development at the University of California Santa Cruz where he also later endowed a chair in Optoelectronics.

He was also a Regents Professor at UC Berkeley, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and served on the board of trustees at both the University of California Santa Cruz and Menlo School.

A member of numerous scientific societies, Dr Kapany was a fellow of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, the Optical Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr Kapany was a noted philanthropist, deeply committed to championing Sikh culture and language. He created the Sikh Foundation in 1967 which pioneered the display of Sikh arts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC and at the Rubin Museum New York.

He established the first permanent Sikh art gallery in the United States at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and in Canada at the Montreal Museum of Art.

In noting those accomplishments, Dr Nikky-Guninder Singh, who chairs the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College, commented that the Sikh world has “lost a visionary leader and a passionate promoter of our art, history, culture and literature.”

Dr Kapany received numerous awards including The Excellence 2000 Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce in 1998, the Pravasi Bharati Award by the Indian government in 2008, an honorary doctorate by the Guru Nanak Dev University, the Fiat Lux Award by University of California in 2008 and the Asia Game Changer West Award in 2019.

He spent the last year writing his memoirs, The Man Who Bent Light, and it is expected to be published by spring 2021.

He is survived by his son Rajinder Singh Kapany, daughter Kiran Kaur Kapany, and his four grandchildren, Ariana, Misha, Tara and Nikki.