The Nineteenth Century  |  The Twentieth Century  |  Applications in the Real World  |  The Twenty-First Century and Beyond

The Nineteenth Century

John Tyndall's Experiment
Figure 1 - John Tyndall's Experiment.
In 1870, John Tyndall, using a jet of water that flowed from one container to another and a beam of light, demonstrated that light used internal reflection to follow a specific path. As water poured out through the spout of the first container, Tyndall directed a beam of sunlight at the path of the water. The light, as seen by the audience, followed a zigzag path inside the curved path of the water. This simple experiment, illustrated in Figure 1, marked the first research into the guided transmission of light.

William Wheeling, in 1880, patented a method of light transfer called "piping light". Wheeling believed that by using mirrored pipes branching off from a single source of illumination, i.e. a bright electric arc, he could send the light to many different rooms in the same way that water, through plumbing, is carried throughout buildings today. Due to the ineffectiveness of Wheeling's idea and to the concurrent introduction of Edison's highly successful incandescent light bulb, the concept of piping light never took off.

That same year, Alexander Graham Bell developed an optical voice transmission system he called the photophone. The photophone used free-space light to carry the human voice 200 meters. Specially placed mirrors reflected sunlight onto a diaphragm attached within the mouthpiece of the photophone. At the other end, mounted within a parabolic reflector, was a light-sensitive selenium resistor. This resistor was connected to a battery that was, in turn, wired to a telephone receiver. As one spoke into the photophone, the illuminated diaphragm vibrated, casting various intensities of light onto the selenium resistor. The changing intensity of light altered the current that passed through the telephone receiver which then converted the light back into speech. Bell believed this invention was superior to the telephone because it did not need wires to connect the transmitter and receiver. Today, free-space optical links find extensive use in metropolitan applications.

Posted on Dec 05, 2008 - 12:35 PM