Computers you notice. They sit on your desk and hum, ever smaller, ever faster, and always obsolete if bought longer ago than last week. But the equally impressive technology that turns millions of terminals into a global network is less obvious. The phone line that comes into your house probably still pushes electrons through metal. But not far away, the signal will join millions of others relayed down fiber optic cables by laser. Jeff Hecht's fascinating account of this undersung technology goes back 150 years to find the origins of fiber optics. Then he chronicles the many ingenious and determined engineers who fashioned it into a technology that festoons the globe with cables carrying pulses of photons. It was harder than pioneering copper links because supplanting an existing technology needs more persuasion than establishing the first one. And there was competition from the satellite industry, as well as unexpected setbacks, such as sharks who ignored copper but chewed fiber optic cables. Hecht tells a good tale, combining a light journalistic touch with a scholarly knowledge of the industry he has covered for over two decades. The story is not over yet, but this is a rich account of how we got this far in a technology that really has fueled a revolution. --Jon Turney, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
The first underwater telegraph cable was laid between England and the Continent in 1850, with the cable from America to Europe following in 1858. But for the next century, improvements in transcontinental communication came slowly. By the 1940s, Americans could talk to Europeans via a static-plagued radiophone. By the early 1980s, satellite transmissions had improved conversation clarity significantly, but callers were still annoyed by delay and feedback. Those who have made a transcontinental call recently, however, know that the wonders of fiber optics have made it possible to hear a pin drop on the Champs-Elysees. In this deft history, Hecht, a writer for the British weekly New Scientist, shows how the illuminated fountains that thrilled crowds at the great 19th-century exhibitions convinced scientists that light can be guided along narrow tubes. In our century, scientists used these tubes of light first to look inside the human body and then, as the physics of wave transmission were better understood, to transmit audio and optical information. Hecht explains which technological advances have made fiber optics the backbone of our telephone system in the last 10-15 years and how everyday applications should increase exponentially once fibers are connected directly to our homes. Already optical fibers are used in many surprising ways: guiding laser light in life-saving surgery; embedded in concrete to monitor stress in bridges; wound into gyroscopes to improve airline safety. Hecht's latter chapters are bogged down slightly with details that will mainly interest readers working in related areas, but general science buffs should enjoy his account of the development of the technology that will change our lives in many unexpected ways in the next quarter century.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.