Apioneering scientist, teacher, entrepreneur, businessman, patron of arts and philanthropist, Moga-born Narinder Singh Kapany was truly multi-faceted. The “father of fibre optics” turned his research into a thriving business, and in the process revolutionised communication and helped provide the underpinnings of the Internet infrastructure of today. He was also a major patron of Sikh arts and sponsored many activities through the Sikh Foundation that he founded.
Born on October 31, 1926, the man who rubbed shoulders with a veritable who’s who of world leaders, presidents, prime ministers and princes, Dr Kapany passed away on December 4, 2020. For “Fortune” magazine, in 1999, he was among the “Unsung Heroes of the 20th century”, who, many contend, had a stronger claim than Charles Kao, who got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009.
As a youngster, he grew up in Dehradun. He earned the BSc degree from Agra University and then went to the UK for advanced studies in optics at the Imperial College of Science in London. There he researched and successfully published a paper on transmitting images through optical fibre bundles in “Nature” in 1954. The same year he married Satinder Kaur in London.
The couple moved to the US in 1955, where Dr Kapany taught at the University of Rochester. He established Optics Technology in 1960 at Palo Alto, California. The west coast was to be his home henceforth, as he devoted his time to teaching — University of California (UC) Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Stanford University — and to his business, going on to founding Kaptron (1973) and K2 Optronics (2000). I remember his laughing and saying that one must be modest when I asked him why he had named his company after the second highest peak in the world.
The Kapany family home welcomed Punjabis. However, the back-to-the-roots yearning took a concrete form with the establishment of the Sikh Foundation in 1967.
In 1997, he set up the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the memory of his mother. In 1999, he endowed a Chair of Opto-Electronics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
He led the commemoration of the Tercentenary of the Khalsa with the international “Sikh arts exhibit” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which was inaugurated by Prince Charles on March 22, 1999.
He lost his wife Satinder in 2016.
Dr Narinder Singh Kapany is survived by his son Raj Kapany and daughter Kiran Kaur Kapany and his grandchildren. His family, foundation and endowed chairs will now have the challenge of shaping his legacy.