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This paper presents an introduction to the principles of lightwave system engineering. The treatment is historical rather than categorical-lightwave systems are described in terms of their evolution through four generations of technology, from a first generation operating at 0.85 μm wavelength over multimode fiber to a fourth generation employing coherent techniques at 1.55 μm. Basic engineering considerations such as fiber dispersion and receiver sensitivity are introduced early, then refined as the discussion progresses toward higher-performance, more sophisticated systems. The fundamental mechanisms that limit the performance of a given technology are quantified, and a figure of merit, the product of bit rate times maximum repeater spacing, is estimated. Values of this product range from about 2 Gbits/s . km for first-generation technology to roughly 900 Gbits/s . km for coherent systems.