News | January 3, 2013

The Optical Society Mourns The Loss Of Tingye Li

The Optical Society (OSA) today expressed its condolences at the loss of Tingye Li, an OSA Fellow Emeritus and 1995 OSA president. Li, renowned for his contributions to lightwave technology and optical fiber communications, died Dec. 27, 2012 in Snowbird, Utah.  He was 81. 

“Tingye was fully engaged in all aspects of his life and OSA was fortunate to have received some of that precious time and focus,” said OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan. “Not only was he world-class, highly-regarded and effective, but he also offered a story, a lesson, or a playful insight that was there if you were paying attention. He conveyed a sincere level of support, respect, and optimism to his colleagues, students, and OSA staff that we’ll always treasure.”

An OSA member since 1966, Li was named an OSA Fellow in 1977.  He served as an At-Large Member of the OSA Board of Directors from 1985-1987, as OSA president in 1995, chaired numerous committees, and was a leader in building the OSA-co-sponsored Asia Communications and Photonics (ACP) conference. 

Born in 1931 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, Li obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, and his Ph. D. from Northwestern University.  He joined Bell Telephone Laboratories (later AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1957, and worked there for 41 years until his retirement in 1998.

During his career at AT&T, Li authored and coauthored more than 100 journal papers, patents, and books in the areas of antennas, microwave propagation, lasers and optical communications.  He made significant contributions in the fields of lightwave technologies and systems, and he spearheaded research on wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) transmission systems that revolutionized long-distance telecommunication networks.

In 1961, he and his colleague A. Gardner Fox published a now-classic paper on laser resonator modes, Resonant modes in a maser interferometer, that established the basis for the understanding of the design of optical resonators and how modes in optical resonators behaved.  In the late 1980s, when the whole world’s attention on optical communication was still focused on a single-channel high-speed solution, Li and his team at AT&T Bell Labs developed the world’s first (sparse channel) WDM system.  Their experiment in 1992 at Roaring Creek turned out to be a "roaring success" as Li claimed in an interview, allowing 2.5 Gbit/s transmission per channel, the highest rate available at the time. The use of WDM and optical amplifiers changed the paradigm of network economics and is considered to be of revolutionary significance (though evolutionary in design) in the history of lightwave communications.

Li received many awards and honors during his long and distinguished career.  He was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Photonic Society of Chinese-Americans, and the International Engineering Consortium.  He was also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the Academia Sinica (Taiwan), and a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Li was the recipient of OSA’s John Tyndall Award (1995) and OSA's Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize (1997); IEEE’s W.R.G. Baker Prize (1975), David Sarnoff Award (1979), Photonics Award (2004), and Edison Medal (2009); and the 1997 AT&T Science and Technology Medal.  He was given the 1981 Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University, and he received Achievement Awards from the Chinese Institute of Engineers/USA (1978), the Chinese-American Academic and Professional Society (1983), and the Photonics Society of Chinese-Americans (1998).  Li was named an honorary professor at many universities in China, including Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Beijing Jiaotong University, Fudan University, Nankai University, Tianjin University, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, and Qufu Normal University.  He was also named an honorary professor at National Chiao Tung University and National Taiwan University, and he was granted an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree by National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

Li was respected and loved as an “elder” among young scientists and engineers in the field of photonics, both for his immeasurable contributions to the field and for his willingness to spend time mentoring, advising, promoting, and encouraging young people. 

Li is survived by his wife, Edith Wu, daughters Deborah (David Cohen) and Kathryn (Daniel Dessau), and several grandchildren.  A memorial service for family, friends and colleagues is being planned. Memorial donations may be made to the OSA Foundation in honor of Tingye Li by visiting the Foundation’s website.

A collection of photos and colleague tributes to Li are available on OSA’s website.

About OSA

Uniting more than 180,000 professionals from 175 countries, the Optical Society (OSA) brings together the global optics community through its programs and initiatives. Since 1916 OSA has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing educational resources to the scientists, engineers and business leaders who work in the field by promoting the science of light and the advanced technologies made possible by optics and photonics. OSA publications, events, technical groups and programs foster optics knowledge and scientific collaboration among all those with an interest in optics and photonics. For more information, visit

SOURCE: Optical Society