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Light Speed
April 27, 2004

Narrator: As night falls, a ship arrives at a buoy positioned a few miles off the coast of San Francisco. The buoy marks a cable stretching all the way to Asia, under 10,000 miles of Ocean. It is being hauled aboard for a delicate mission. This is no ordinary cable and once corralled, it must be handled with special care. Over several hours, layer upon layer of rubber and steel are removed, to reveal an extraordinary core, made not of metal, but of a dozen hair-thin fibers of glass. This glass --the purest ever created -- has changed the world. Next comes the critical step. The glass from the Asian cable must be joined to another that runs to back to the US.

Under a microscope, the fibers are aligned, then fused. The cable now forms a continuous path for data and information, from San Francisco to Shanghai. The traffic on this glass highway consists of simple pulses of laser light. But these pulses carry information to run the modern world. Untroubled by passports, visas, or border crossings, they fly across the globe. This network is just the latest chapter in humanity's quest to communicate. An epic tale in which scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs struggle against nature's limits.

A journey that has culminated in Fiber Optics ... (lightening flash) ... a technology that marries the spectacular properties of light, with the magical transparency of glass.


Narrator: Three thousand years ago, the only way to send vital messages was to carry them. Urgent news took months to travel across land and sea. Ever since, people have struggled to find a better way. And across the ages, humans have shown remarkable ingenuity. News of the fall of Troy, for example, was relayed with a system of fire beacons that carried a prearranged signal nearly 400 miles from island to island. The news of the victory reached Mycenae in Southern Greece within hours.

Tom Standage: You only sent very, very important messages using these kinds of systems to signal the fall of Troy or the arrival of the Spanish Armada, but the problem with this kind of communication is that you have to agree what lighting a fire means before you do it. So you can't send an arbitrary message. You couldn't say, "Come to tea tomorrow." This was not the sort of thing that most people had access to. It was only the elite, the ruling class, the military, who were using this sort of thing.

Narrator: This was the case for thousands of years -- until, in the 18th Century, a French visionary named Claude Chappe arrived on the scene. Seeking fame and fortune, Chappe built a series of giant communication towers that some have called the Napoleonic Internet. With funding from the French government, Chappe constructed hundreds of towers like this one, each adorned with giant arms that could be clearly seen with a telescope, from adjacent towers. Because each letter of the alphabet could be represented with different arm positions, specific messages could be sent from tower to tower, and relayed clear across France.

Tom Standage: You could send a message from one end of France to another, in a matter of minutes, at hundreds of miles an hour, which is much faster than a horse can travel. And this was something that had previously been completely impossible. Napoleon was a great fan of the Chappe telegraph system. And he extended it all over France and down as far as Spain and so forth. In fact the first thing Napoleon did when he took power was send a message saying, "I'm in charge now."

Narrator: But Chappe's system had serious drawbacks.

Ira Flatow: Well one of the problems with doing something from tower to tower is what happens when it gets rainy or it's cloudy or it's misty and you can't see the signal any more? And it's not a great idea to have to rely on the weather because it could be bad for a week or more. You could have snow or hurricanes or winds and that's not a reliable system.

Narrator: For all its flaws, Chappe's network opened up a new era in human communication. But Chappe himself did not fare as well.

Tom Standage: Chappe seems to have gone a bit strange towards the end of his life. He became very paranoid and was concerned that other people were stealing his ideas, that he hadn't been given sufficient credit. And he eventually killed himself by jumping down a well.

Narrator: And soon after, his life work was eclipsed by a better communication technology -- the telegraph, which worked day and night, rain or shine. Using Morse Code to represent the letters of the alphabet as combinations of dots and dashes, the telegraph took the business world by storm.

Ira Flatow: Knowledge is power and so if you have a little bit of business knowledge before somebody else does, you have a leg up. And so getting that information quickly from one part of the city, one part of the country, one part of the world to the next part, is very, very valuable to business people.

Narrator: By the middle of the 19th Century, people who could afford to send telegrams, could communicate with lightning speed over long distances. But only on land. The oceans still represented a monumental barrier. Transatlantic messages took several weeks by ship. On some occasions, this delay had deadly consequences. In 1815, British and American forces met in a bloody battle in New Orleans. The fighting lasted for days, and left thousands dead. But tragically, the war had ended several weeks earlier.

Tom Standage: The peace treaty has actually been signed. But it's been signed on the other side of the world, and the news has not reached the soldiers. So this entire battle is a massive and needless loss of life.

Narrator: Such disasters provided inspiration for a radical proposal: a transatlantic telegraph cable. But the Atlantic was vast. At its narrowest point, between Newfoundland and Ireland, there was sixteen hundred miles of open water -- in places two and half miles deep. Entrepreneur Cyrus Field understood the challenge, but viewed it as an opportunity.

Tom Standage: His main qualification for doing it was that he knew nothing about telegraphy at all. And had he known anything, then he might have just concluded it was impossible and not bothered. But he was a businessman, and he could see that there would be enormous benefits and money to be made if you could connect Europe and America. So that's what he set out to do.

Narrator: Field's bold plan, which skeptics said would never work, called for two cable-ships, the Niagara and the Agamemnon to meet in mid-Atlantic, splice their cables together, then set off for opposite shores. Against all odds, the venture succeeded. On August 18, 1858, Queen Victoria and President Buchanan exchanged polite messages.

Tom Standage: The Queen has much pleasure in thus communicating with the President, and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

Narrator: But a few weeks later the cable shorted out ... and went dead.

Ira Flatow: Either they could try to repair it, or they could give up and say we have to lay the cable all over again. And in the early phases, when the cable was a couple of miles below the ocean, there's nothing you can do but just throw up your hands and say "let's lay another cable because we can't fish it out of the bottom." And the fact that they did try over and over again, shows you how important that they felt that this trans-Atlantic long distance communication was.

Narrator: Undaunted by the setbacks, Field returned to the drawing board and ordered the cable redesigned. This time it was manufactured as one giant, twenty seven hundred-mile piece. Then it was loaded onto the Great Eastern, the only ship of its time big enough to carry 5,000 tons of copper cable. In July 1865, the vessel set sail for Newfoundland. But 600 miles from land, the cable snapped and fell to the bottom.

Field tried again. And, finally, in July of 1866, after some 12 years of effort, he achieved his dream. From then on the two continents would never be separated. Field went on to other ventures, but bad investments and corrupt business partners lost him his fortune. In 1892, he died a pauper. But before he passed on, he saw the telegraph spanning the globe. For all the success, however, there was a fundamental problem. Only one message could be carried on a wire at a time. And telegraph companies simply couldn't string enough cables to keep up with demand.

So inventors looked for a way to stuff several signals onto a single telegraph wire. One such innovator was a teacher of the deaf named Alexander Graham Bell. Bell came up with a novel idea for solving the capacity problem: a process called multiplexing. It was like sending telegraph signals as different musical notes.

Ira Flatow: Let's say Uncle Dudley wants to talk to Aunt Millie. Well Uncle Dudley's on this note. You can send his signal on one note here. You can send another signal on this note here. And we can encode them together, we can multiplex them together as two notes.

Narrator: Bell quickly realized that this trick of combining messages on the same wire had much bigger implications —implications that went far beyond the improvement of the telegraph.

Ira Flatow: He discovers almost by accident as he's tuning up his multiplexing system, that a voice can also be sent along the wires. And being the kind of guy he is, because he grew up in a family where his father and he had taught the deaf how to speak, he's very keen on the idea of speech. Now other inventors have also discovered that you can possibly send a voice over a wire but they consider it to be just a toy. But Bell says I'm going to experiment more and see if I can really make something that really works. And he does go ahead and he does literally get to the patent office a few hours before his competitor. And so he's credited with inventing the telephone."

Narrator: Initially adoption was sluggish. Almost two decades after his 1876 patent, this national long distance telephone book was published. It shows how slow the telephone was to take off. Bell's name can be found in the Washington DC section -- one of only a few dozen subscribers in that city.

David Johnson: Believe it or not in the earliest days of telecommunications there were many people who thought it would never catch on. The telegraph did just about everything they thought would be necessary. And some folks actually laughed at Alexander Graham Bell because they said "who would possibly want a device that would allow you to talk from one room to another, from one side of the city to another or even from one state to another.

Narrator: But the telephone did catch on. First in cities, and then across America, public demand became insatiable. Ironically, the telephone's inventor thought there might be a more elegant way to send messages. One that avoided all the unsightly cables. In 1880, Bell patented a new communication device based not on wires and electricity, but on mirrors and light beams. He called it the photophone.

Ira Flatow: 100 years before the laser beam, he thinks about using light to communicate through the air where people can speak over a light beam.

Narrator: It was an extraordinary contraption, with a microphone that made a mirror vibrate as a person spoke.


Narrator: Sun shining on the vibrating mirror was reflected in different directions by the speech. This "modulated" light carried the message through the air to a receiving station. Bell's receiver used a newly discovered element called selenium, whose electrical resistance changed with light. The selenium turned the flickering light into electricity, which drove a small speaker.


Jeff Hecht: He was really experimenting with wireless communication. The photophone was wireless. And Bell was really excited about this and he wrote a letter saying I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing and he was just so happy about this.

Narrator: Despite Bell's enthusiasm, his photophone -- which needed a clear and uninterrupted line of sight--was dismissed as impractical. But Bell's concept of talking with light beams was a brilliant idea. It was just a century ahead of its time. Before light could be harnessed for communication, scientists would need to find a way to guide it, just as they channeled electricity through wires. Even in Bell's day, some physicists had an inkling of how this might be done -- although they were largely interested in the principle for its entertainment value. The phenomenon was called total internal reflection -- and it was used to wow audiences by showing how a light beam focused into a jet of water would follow the curve as it fell. There is some interesting science behind this optical magic. Light travels more slowly in water than air. So when it reaches the water-air boundary, it speeds up and gets bent. At a certain angle, the light ray is bent so much, it is reflected back into the water.

Lou Bloomfield: It's a beautiful demonstration. The light's hitting a boundary between water-- in which it travels slowly-- and air-- in which it would travel fast. And it bends so ferociously that it reflects perfectly off the surface. And so every time the light tries to escape from this spout, this sort of column of water heading down, it reflects perfectly and it follows the water all the way until the water hits the bottom.

Narrator: A century later, total internal reflection would help enable unlimited global communications. But in Bell's day it was just a parlor trick, used for public science lectures and to illuminate fountains.

Tom Standage: The time isn't quite right and the technology isn't quite right to stick all this together. And you know the need isn't there.

Narrator: The world wasn't quite ready for communication with light, but meanwhile, the telephone continued its spread across America and the world. And at the dawn of the 20th Century, the telephone was joined by another breakthrough technology -- radio -- which opened up a new chapter in the history of communications. It was a means of transmitting large amounts of data without the need for copper wires.

Lou Bloomfield: Part of the beauty in radio is that you can transfer information from one site to another without having to run wires between them. It just goes right through the air. The radio wave itself is just a pure electromagnetic tone and there's no information on that. The information is in whether you turn on or off the tone. So if you can wink on and off a radio wave, a person at the far end can observe this winking with equipment and you can convey information.

Narrator: Like a telegraph signal, which sends messages as dots and dashes, a winking radio wave encodes information into "on" and "off." The faster it is turned on and off, the more information can be encoded. Initially engineers used low frequency waves that could send simple Morse Code messages for hundreds of miles. These waves were enormous, and could flow over trees and hills as if they weren't there. However the low frequency radio waves could only carry small amounts of information, because winking them on and off too fast, destroyed the wave. To get around this problem, engineers began using higher frequency waves. These could be winked on and off faster -- allowing much more data to be transferred.

Lou Bloomfield: If all you want to do is say that you arrived safely, a few dashes and dots will solve the problem. But if you want to convey something like sound information, your favorite symphony or speech, you have to out a lot more bits per second to this radio wave in order to convey enough information so that they at the far end can recreate the speech and the symphony.

Narrator: Frequencies vibrating thousands of times a second could transmit music through the air -- giving rise to personal radios. And waves vibrating millions of times a second, could carry television pictures directly into people's living rooms. The world of in-home entertainment was now a reality, but the high frequency waves came with a significant downside. As the frequencies got higher and higher, the waves got correspondingly smaller -- meaning they couldn't travel as far.

Lou Bloomfield: As you get to smaller and smaller waves like microwaves, which have wavelengths like this, little objects little obstacles become very important and you have to be able to see clearly from the transmitter to the receiver otherwise you lose the wave.

Narrator: The very highest frequency waves -- microwaves that vibrated billions of times a second -- could even be blocked by clouds and rain. So engineers went back to the drawing board, and came up with a special hollow pipe, called a coaxial cable, through which they could send many frequencies of radio waves. The weather was now no obstacle, but the coaxial cable created its own set of problems.

Lou Bloomfield: The higher the frequency you try to send through this little electromagnetic pipe, the faster the pipe consumes it and turns its energy into heat. And then you have to boost it up with an amplifier to make up for that power that's consumed by the pipe itself.

Archival Voice Over: And here's one of the structures containing the answer to the problem. It shelters the most amazing amplifying apparatus ever designed or manufactured.

Narrator: With boosters installed every mile or so, coaxial cables allowed the use of radio waves to proliferate. But this wouldn't work across the oceans.

Tom Standage: You can't have hundreds of repeating stations under the sea, from Europe to America, so the alternative then is that you use a lower frequency signal but then you don't get as much capacity. So that was really the problem.

Narration: To get around it, scientists reached for sky. In 1962, AT&T launched a tiny satellite called Telstar, giving it the ability to bounce radio waves between continents.

Archival VO: 170 pounds of complex electronic equipment that receive signals beamed from earth, magnifies them 10 billion times, and rebroadcasts them back to earth.

Jeff Hecht: The great hope was the telecommunications satellite. Put a satellite up and then bounce signals from one part of the world to the other. Because this satellite can see New York and it can see London. It sounded like a great idea until you tried it.

Narrator: While the satellites lower frequencies didn't get blocked by the weather, users complained about the cost, and the annoying audio delay.

Fred Chapel: How do you hear me? How do you hear me?

LBJ: You're coming through nicely ... You're coming through nicely ...

Jeff Hecht: The problem was that it took a quarter of a second to get up and back. It throws your timing off. It throws all the cues off. People didn't like it. It's annoying. It's like talking through a tunnel.

Narrator: Satellites also proved difficult to launch. When they worked however, they did allow for better communication than the underwater telegraph. But another device, invented in 1958, would soon provide a far superior option. It was called the laser. The laser was an unparalleled source of light. When, Bell labs sought a patent for it, few realized it would transform communications. Instead, scientists envisioned a multitude of other applications. Lasers produced narrow, ordered beams, vibrating with a single pure frequency. This meant that the beams had incredible precision, and could be narrowly focused. Depending on their size and power, lasers could be used for everything from cutting metal to scientific research. But the lasers' greatest impact would be in the field of communications. Because ordinary light was a hopeless mixture of frequencies, it had never been useful for encoding information. But the laser was different.

Ira Flatow: Look at the flashlight beam it's really scattered the signal spreads out. Now look what happens when I bring a laser next to it. Look how intense that light beam is. It's focused, you can almost imagine the light waves marching in step one after another. Look how much easier it is to work with this light. If you want to send a signal, all you have to do is flash it on and off on and off many times a second. And you can begin to imagine how useful this becomes for communication.

Lou Bloomfield: Light waves are very, very high frequency radio waves. Instead of fluctuating a million or a billion times a second they fluctuate on the order of a thousand trillion times a second, so they're extremely capable of carrying information. You can send billions, tens of billions maybe even trillions of bits of information on a single light wave.

Narrator: Because lasers could be winked on and off so fast, they could carry enormous amounts of information. But there was one familiar problem--the weather.

Ira Flatow: Once again we have the same problems that we've had for centuries with communications through the air. The air itself. It could be wet, it could be rainy it could be cloudy. It's going to block the laser beam. So you have to invent a way of encapsulating that laser in some sort of wire.

Lou Bloomfield: Wires are clearly not transparent to light though so you're not going to do it very well using a conventional coaxial cable with a laser. You have to have something that's transparent, something that's very good at conveying light from one end to the other.

Narrator: The answer lay in the Victorian parlor trick called total internal reflection.

For if a light beam can be guided by a water spout, the same trick should work with a more practical transparent medium--glass. Glass had the ideal properties to carry light, just as copper wires carried electricity and coaxial cable carried radio waves. But curiously, the first to take advantage of this ability were not communications engineers, but doctors. Doctors who desperately needed a way to see into their patients' stomachs. During the first half of the 20th century, they got by with rigid, painful gastroscopes -- essentially hollow tubes fitted with angled mirrors. But in 1956, for a physics project, a college freshman at the University of Michigan named Lawrence Curtiss, set out to build a more humane instrument, using thin flexible glass fibers. He found that the individual fibers could transmit a tiny image over a few feet. But when he bundled the fibers together to get a bigger image, he encountered a surprising setback.

Lawrence Curtiss: I packaged it up and went to see what the image looked like to find out whether I had broken very many fibers. The startling thing was there was no image --it had all washed out. We took it out of the tubing and grabbed the fibers and squeezed the fibers together, you could just see light was leaking from one fiber to adjacent fibers.

Narrator: Curtiss soon discovered what was wrong. When each fiber was surrounded by air, total internal reflection kept the light beams inside. But when he squeezed the fibers together, the effect vanished and the light leaked out. Curtiss also found that scratches and finger oil had a similar effect. The problem seemed insurmountable. But then, he had an inspired idea. Instead of air, why not surround the glass core with an outer layer of even purer glass. This layer would perform the same function as the air, making total internal reflection possible with multiple fibers.

Lou Bloomfield: "Total internal reflection doesn't depend on air itself, it depends on the light speeding up as it enters a new medium. Air is just an example. But if you can put a glass layer, a cladding, around the fiber, something in which light travels very fast, faster than in the core, you can still get total internal reflection. The reflection is truly perfect, and you can go through thousands or millions or even billions of reflections, with essentially no loss at all.

Narrator: So Curtiss reasoned that if every fiber was surrounded by even clearer glass, they could be bundled together into a working gastroscope without losing light. Taking a tube of ultra clear glass for the cladding, and a rod of slightly less clear glass for the core, Curtiss prepared to draw the individual fibers.

Lawrence Curtiss: I remember going over to the chemistry stores and getting a piece of standard laboratory tubing. I took it back to the lab and rigged it up in the fiber pulling apparatus. I backed out of the room and into the hallway and down to the end of the hallway, which had to be 40 or 50 feet away. And through the end of the fiber, I could still see the glow of the furnace. This was the first time I'd seen it over that length.

Narrator: After pulling many fibers, Curtiss built a working gastroscope. Within a few weeks, it was being tested on a patient in a local hospital.

Lawrence Curtiss: This was phenomenal. This was one of the few times in my life when I knew that I had something that was truly going to be significant.

Narrator: Within a decade, fiber optic endoscopes had become a routine part of medicine.

DR. David Carr-Locke: OK Sam, we all set to do this?

Narrator: For patients like Sam Verderico, who must have stents removed from his pancreas, there is no need for an invasive operation or general anesthesia.

SOT: Is this our room? Let's set you up here.

Narrator: Fully awake, Sam will be operated on by Dr. Carr-Locke, who will use a fiber optic bundle to scope his digestive tract.

DR. David Carr-Locke: Let's get you comfortable like that.

Dr David Carr-Locke VO: The whole field of gastroenterology changed in the late 60s and early 70s when endoscopy really came in and allowed us to do things without surgery for the first time.

Dr. David Carr-Locke (SOF): I'm going to place a plastic ring between your teeth, and it's going to stay there throughout the procedure, all right, and we're going to hold it there for you.

Dr. David Carr-Locke VO: The fibers themselves are absolutely tiny and there may be many thousands of them in a bundle that is perhaps only a few millimeters in diameter. The fiber optic bundle is completely flexible.

Dr. David Carr-Locke (SOF): OK Sam let's make a start. The most uncomfortable part of this procedure is right at the beginning.

Dr. David Carr-Locke VO: The flexibility of the endoscope allows us to get into parts of the GI tract that were not accessible before endoscopy came along.

Dr. David Carr-Locke (SOF): So we're passing through the esophagus and here now is the stomach.

Dr. David Carr-Locke VO: Most of the patients that we both diagnose and treat are treated as out- patients. So they walk into our unit, have their procedure done and go home again afterwards.

Narrator: Today's gastroscopes allow surgeons not only to see, but also to operate. The tube that carries the fiber optics has a channel for specially designed instruments.

Dr. David Carr-Locke(SOF): This is a loop snare that's angulated so it allows me to grab a device like this stent. So I'm going to pull it up through the channel of endoscope. There it is. Do you want to grab the stent and just open the snare.

Narrator: By the late 1960s, sending light down a fiber optic endoscope was commonplace. But the real revolution -- the one Bell had dreamed of a century before--was yet to come. Because if fiber could transmit images from inside the body, in principle, it could also carry pulses of laser light across the globe. Light so pure, it could encode colossal amounts of information. But one final challenge remained. For long range communication, the fibers would have to be almost perfectly transparent -- vastly clearer than any glass ever made.

Jeff Hecht: "Glass in a window looks clear. But turn a pane of ordinary window glass sideways and you see it looks green and murky. There's iron in it, there's copper in there. There's all sorts of stuff that absorbs light if the light goes too far. What you needed was a glass that was very, very pure.

Narrator: The dream of optical communications called for flawless glass -- glass so pure it would transmit light over a kilometer -- exceeding the maximum distance radio waves could travel down coaxial cables without amplification. One of the scientists trying to realize this dream was Peter Shultz.

Peter Shultz: This was a real, daunting challenge. Even the purest glasses that they could make into these fibers would go no further than roughly ten feet and then the signal would be lost. And really no one knew if it could be done.

Narrator: In the late 60s, Schultz, Don Keck and Bob Maurer set out to make it happen. Ironically, the trio worked for a company better known for cookware than communications---Corning Glass in upstate New York. The obvious approach was to take the clearest glass available, and purify it even more. But team leader Bob Maurer suggested a different approach.

Peter Shultz: Instead of using conventional glasses, which were easily melted but difficult to purify, he thought maybe we could use a simple glass, which was fused silica. It's the highest temperature glass known to man, very difficult to melt and very difficult to draw into fiber and to process.

Narrator: Unlike ordinary glass, fused-silica is made of pure sand, with no additional chemicals to help it melt at lower temperatures. Previously, Corning had only used it for special projects, like large telescope mirrors. Now the trio used it make optical fibers. But they soon hit a roadblock. The rod and tube method Curtiss had used to make endoscope fibers, just wasn't clean enough.

Bob Maurer: When you put a rod and a tube together, you trap various kinds of dirt and pockets of air which generate bubbles and so forth. And so there are a lot those things scattering the light out as it travels down the fiber.

Narrator: So the team came up with a radical solution. Dispensing with the glass rod, they made a core by spraying fused-silica, combined with tiny amounts of impurities, onto the inside of a glass tube.

Peter Shultz: The particles were so small that in fact it looks just like smoke from a cigarette. Well, we needed to direct these particles into the tube itself, to get them to stick to the inside wall.

Don Keck: And the soot initially didn't go in at all. But one of us, I don't remember now who, spotted an old vacuum cleaner that existed in the corner of the laboratory.

Peter Shultz: And we attached it to the other end of the tube, turned it on, put the face of the tube into the torch, and sucked this smoke into the tube to coat the inside wall. And it worked.

Narrator: The genius of the idea was that when the tube was heated and drawn, it collapsed into a miniscule fiber of solid glass: The sprayed coating became the actual fiber, surrounded by the clearer fused-silica cladding. The core would carry the laser light. The surrounding cladding would ensure total internal reflection. By 1970 the team's fibers could carry laser light a kilometer, beating coaxial cables. By 1975 even purer fibers carried light ten kilometers...and the distances have been rising ever since.

Today, optical fibers are manufactured essentially the same way. But to create the millions of miles needed, they are produced in tall buildings called draw towers. After the core particles have been deposited onto the inner surface of the tube, a glass object called a preform is produced. From this one preform, 150 miles of glass fiber can be made. What happens next is a mixture of high technology and gravity. First the preform is taken to the top of the draw tower. Then it is clamped in place and lowered into a furnace heated to over 2,000 degrees Celsius. In the intense heat, the tip of the preform starts to melt ... and begins to fall. The tube collapses on itself. The inner surface coating shrinks down to become the tiny core that will carry the laser pulses. The outer tube becomes the cladding. As the glass drops, it becomes thinner and thinner, until it reaches the diameter of a human hair. But the fiber remains flexible, strong and incredibly clear.

Don Keck: This glass is so pure that if the ocean was as transparent as this glass is, you could see the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, the Marian trench, it's a depth of about 5 kilometers.

Narrator: By the mid 1970s it was clear three scientists at a glass company had made the breakthrough many had thought impossible. Bell's dream of communicating with light was now a reality. A single fiber of glass could carry the same amount of information as all these copper cables combined -- tens of thousands of phones calls. And it could carry them for many miles. This was the Holy Grail of telecommunications. Over the next two decades millions of miles of fiber optic cable were produced--replacing a century's worth of copper wire. Ships like the Global Sentinel completed a highway of glass encircling the Earth. To date, such ships have laid an estimated 4 million miles of glass fiber under the world's oceans--enough to cross the Atlantic a thousand times. And another 300 million miles crisscross the continents, forming what has been called a glass necklace of communications. But just as skeptics had once questioned the telephone, there were those who doubted the need for all the new capacity. The naysayers were soon proved wrong.

Ira Flatow: So here you've got all this capacity looking for a home. I mean what can we do with this? And almost coincidentally to the rescue comes something they'll later call the internet.

Narrator: Today, the global glass network carries not only ever-increasing internet traffic, but also the data for worldwide commerce and banking. It also connects telephones around the planet. Even in the age of cell phones, a call travels only a small distance through the air to the nearest cell tower, before continuing its journey as laser pulses down glass fibers. Fiber optics lies at the center of a stunning convergence of communication technologies.

David Johnson: "On a typical business day, we'll handle approximately 300 million voice calls across the network and will handle 1700 terabytes of data. That's basically the printed contents of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, every 17 minutes."

Narrator: Despite all this chatter, fiber is so cheap to make and lay, that the world soon had far more than it knew what to do with. Supply outstripped demand, and the industry was poised for a fall. In 2000, the telecom stocks crashed. But experts agree that this downturn was just a growing-pain of a new technology -- that people will soon find new and novel uses for all the extra capacity. And there are already glimpses of what some of these uses may be. Once again medicine is leading the way. North Bay, a town in northern Canada, is the scene of a remarkable experiment. Howard Longfellow needs a difficult operation to prevent his stomach contents from leaking back into his esophagus. The procedure is done through a series of tiny incisions, using a fiber optic laparoscope, and specially designed surgical instruments. Few surgeons at small community hospitals have the skills and training to do this advanced operation. But today, the local surgeon, Dr. Craig McKinley, will have some unusual support.

Dr. Craig McKinley: Are we live with audio and video downstairs. Yes we are. And we're live with audio and video to Hamilton. Yes we are. Morning Mehran. How are you doing?

Dr. Mehran Anvari: Morning Craig.

Narrator: Mehran Anvari is one of the world's top laparoscopic surgeons. His hands have performed hundreds of these procedures. Today he sits in a special room on the outskirts of Toronto, nearly 250 miles away from North Bay. Connected by high speed fiber optics, he is waiting and watching as Dr. McKinley readies the patient.

Dr. Craig McKinley: For the people in North Bay, I'm sure everyone has some idea what we're going to do today. We're going to collaborate to do an anti-heartburn surgery on a young male who has really quite disabling gastro-esophageal reflux disease with heart burn and Dr Anvari will be some 350 kilometers away in Hamilton and I'll be here in North Bay.

Narrator: Anvari is not simply going to watch and advise. Thanks to the marriage of fiber optics and robotics, he is going to operate as well.

SOT: OK go ahead.


SOT: Interesting, there was a little vessel there huh?

Narrator: Over the next 90 minutes the two surgeons will perform a tricky dissection, then wrap a portion of the stomach around the esophagus to prevent stomach acid from being regurgitated.

SOT: Can Aesop move in.

SOT: Aesop. Move in. Stop.

Dr. Mehran Anvari: This technology allows me to feel as if I am in the operating room in North Bay sitting near the patient performing a standard surgery. It allows us to connect teaching hospitals to smaller community hospitals to allow the surgeons in these community hospitals to perform technically advanced surgical procedures with confidence and with assistance from experts.

SOT: I'm just going to mobilize the esophagus ...

Dr. Mehran Anvari: This is not an easy operation, certainly. It's in a very delicate area of the body. Right there where I took my suture, right there is the inferior vena cava, the largest vein, vessel in the body, which one perforation would obviously be catastrophic. Within a centimeter or so we are in range of vessels in the body and really the technology is performing fine.

Narrator: The operation goes flawlessly -- a successful test of this revolutionary new procedure. Since Canada has an advanced fiber optic infrastructure, Anvari expects such telesurgeries to play a growing role in delivering health care to Canada's remote regions.

Dr. Mehran Anvari: What we have done is to show that surgery is possible at long distances. It could be hundreds of kilometers it could be thousands of kilometers. We are connected. It's very much like where the Internet was a couple of decades ago. This is really a network for medical and surgical care.

Narrator: Now that the concept has been proved as a viable option, interest is growing. The military has approached Anvari for more information. And NASA is even exploring the possibility of doing remote surgery on the space station.

SOT: It's quite a large fat pad isn't it?

Narrator: Remote telesurgery suggests that the next chapter in the story of fiber optics may take us beyond what we think of as communication. In addition to talking, listening and watching, we will be able to act at a distance. And if history is any guide, fiber optics' dominance of communications will only be temporary. Like most technologies, it will turn out to have limits ... limits that drive inventors to develop something even better.

Tom Standage: What's very interesting about the history of communications is that very few communications technologies ever become obsolete. We still have telephones. Radio we're still using it. TV still there. And the current technology is fiber optics, and the capacity is vast and we can't imagine we're ever going to use all that fiber that's in the ground now. But the lesson of history is that sooner or later we're going to find some new better way and then its going to I don't know enable us to go faster than the speed of light or some other great breakthrough like that. And then all of this will start all over again.


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A Palfreman Film Group, Inc. production for Thirteen/WNET New York in association with Carlton International

© 2004 Educational Broadcasting Corporation and Carlton International

INNOVATION was produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, which is solely responsible for its content.

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