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New 'Light Pieces' crafted by UCL's workshop engineer

and Optical Networks Group's Artist-in-Residence illuminate the science of light
New 'Light Pieces' crafted by UCL's workshop engineer

Photogram of preform offcut of optical fibre by Dara Rigal

Hidden at the end of the back corridor on the 6th Floor of UCL’s Roberts Building is the incongruous EEE workshop in which the highly skilled workshop team make the finely crafted and machined parts that often become the unseen inner workings of EEE academic and student projects. The workshop plays an unseen, but vital, part in the research process and successes of UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering. However, a recent collaboration between workshop engineer John Langdon and Optical Networks Group’s (ONG’s) Artist-in-Residence, Dara Rigal has highlighted the craftsmanship of the workshop team.

To help explain the science behind ONG’s research programme on ‘unlocking the capacity of optical communications’ (www.unloc.net) to a broader audience, Dara designed several ‘Light Pieces’. By illuminating preform offcuts from the manufacture of optical fibres, the phenomena of total internal reflection and wave guiding become visible in striking and dramatic form.

These vessels of light harness the skill of an experienced maker to bring them to realisation. John patiently machined the bases and tops out of brass and then assembled the parts to display the fragile optical fibre drops. This process, requiring perseverance, patience and ingenuity, has become a metaphor for the evolution of communications from a copper cable-based system to one of optical fibres. Like the craftsmanship of the workshop, the objects appear to be from another time while containing some of the most current and cutting edge technology.

These beautiful, deeply meaningful and engaging pieces were exhibited at the launch of ‘London Light’ at King’s College on the 9th May to celebrate the UNESCO International Day of Light, attracting huge admiration and interest.  Future exhibition of these pieces are being explored with the British Museum, the Royal Society and other locations.  These pieces were designed to mark several recent anniversaries related to light based technologies:

  • 150 years of the first successful undersea cable (in 1866)
  • 100 years since the birth of the information theory founder Claude Shannon (1916)
  • 50 years since the first proposal for the use of optical fibres by C K Kao (1966)
  • 40 years since the first optical fibre network trials – which took place in the UK (1977)

 

The Light Pieces will serve as reminders of the engineering quest to transform our ability to communicate, the power of engineering ingenuity and determination, and the power of light!

Dara Rigal and Professor Polina Bayvel.

John Langdon sets up the CNC machine before closing the guard.

The CNC machine is then programmed to work on the piece.