“The History of Fiber Optics, this week, is taken from George Gilder’s book, “Telecosm,” published in the year 2000. Fiber Optics is not futurism, for the science behind it is already history. The impact of change, though, will exceed most of the dreams of technological futurists. Most futurists falter because they belittle the power of religious paradigms (para-dimes; standards), deeming them either too literal or too fantastic. Yet futures are apprehended only in the prophetic mode of the inspired historian.
The ability to communicate—readily, at great distances, in robes of light—is so crucial and coveted that in the Bible it is embodied only in angels. Distance is a fundamental premise of a material world. It fell not to the force of the telegraph, telephone, television, or the airplane. None of these achieve true action at a distance. Transmitting a few words, a few minutes of voice, even the filmed spectacles that broadcasters bounce around our globe, serve only to remind us how bound and gagged we are—how tied to the limits of space and time; space that angels traverse in an instant. The power fiber optics offer, bring us back to the paradigms of paradise with its perils, prophets and their nemeses: infinite abundances and demonic scarcities. The concept of infinitude challenge us all, but the central event in technology over the past decade is a growing awareness that the information bearing power of the electromagnetic spectrum—its range of frequencies and wavelengths available to carry signals—is “not” severely limited, as previously believed, but is essentially infinite. Each fiber optic strand can carry a thousand times more information than all current wireless technologies combined. The basic measure of bandwidth is hertz or wave cycles per second. The bandwidth of currently used spectrum comes to a total of some 25 billion hertz, or in scientific notation 25 times 10 to the ninth power. The capacity of a fiber optic cable is measured in petahertz—10 to the 15th power, waves per second and is yet expanding.
Over the last thirty years, we’ve undergone a computer revolution. We live in the era of the transistor and they’ve become essentially costless. On a computer memory chip, the price of a transistor, with support circuits dropped from seven dollars to a few millionths of a cent. Declining at an annual rate of 68 percent, the price of a bit is now plunging close to a millionth of a cent as the billion transistor device—the gigachip—is introduced, on its way to an eventual price of less than ten dollars. Thirty-five years ago a single chip factory could produce about a hundred transistors per day. Today, a single production line in a microchip factory can produce some 1.6 trillion transistors per day.
Every nation company, and individual—from the oldest profession to the newest, whether you are a police officer, prostitute, farmer, general, coach, geologist, doctor, pharmacist or a software engineer, all use transistors. Transistors etched by the millions on chips smaller than a thumbnail and nearly as cheap as the beach sand of which they are made.
From Iraq to FedEx, Wally-World to British Petrolium, from the NBA to Merrill Lynch, successful ventures have exploited millions of computers, each one more powerful than the huge mainframes of the 1960s, animating every appliance from a microwave oven to a hair dryer, and from an airbag to a hairball or what Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNeally dubs Bill Gates’ software.