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We're used to the idea of information traveling in different ways. When we speak into a landline telephone, a wire cable carries the sounds from our voice into a socket in the wall, where another cable takes it to the local telephone exchange. Cellphones work a different way: they send and receive information using invisible radio waves—a technology called wireless because it uses no cables. Fiber optics works a third way. It sends information coded in a beam of light down a glass or plastic pipe. It was originally developed for endoscopes in the 1950s to help doctors see inside the human body without having to cut it open first. In the 1960s, engineers found a way of using the same technology to transmit telephone calls at the speed of light (normally that's 186,000 miles or 300,000 km per second in a vacuum, but slows to about two thirds this speed in a fiber-optic cable).

Photo: A section of 144-strand fiber-optic cable. Each strand is made of optically pure glass and is thinner than a human hair. Picture by Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson, courtesy of US Air Force.Outdoor optical fiber cable

A fiber-optic cable is made up of incredibly thin strands of glass or plastic known as optical fibers; one cable can have as few as two strands or as many as several hundred. Each strand is less than a tenth as thick as a human hair and can carry something like 25,000 telephone calls, so an entire fiber-optic cable can easily carry several million calls.

Fiber-optic cables carry information between two places using entirely optical (light-based) technology. Suppose you wanted to send information from your computer to a friend's house down the street using fiber optics. You could hook your computer up to a laser, which would convert electrical information from the computer into a series of light pulses. Then you'd fire the laser down the fiber-optic cable. After traveling down the cable, the light beams would emerge at the other end. Your friend would need a photoelectric cell (light-detecting component) to turn the pulses of light back into electrical information his or her computer could understand. So the whole apparatus would be like a really neat, hi-tech version of the kind of telephone you can make out of two baked-bean cans and a length of string!

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