Arthur C. Clarke and the Global Communications Satellite

After the crest of World War II, from his base in Stratford-on-Avon, England, a young officer in the Royal Air Force, Arthur C. Clarke, who dabbled in science fiction writing, floated the idea of global communications satellites in a 1945 letter to the publication Wireless World. It was the first publicly articulated vision of a technology that would change the world; in the annals of technological forecasting, it stands today as a letter of rare prescience. As German V-2 rocket bombs were terrorizing London, Clarke envisioned using that same technology to boost into orbit a payload that could be used to conduct research in outer space. The Nazis, Clarke wrote, also believed such a system could be developed 'within 50-100 years.' Although his letter mostly dealt with rocketry, Clarke ended with an idea about launching a machine into orbit that could facilitate communications to and from Earth: 'I would like to close by mentioning a possibility of the more remote future -- perhaps half a century ahead. An 'artificial satellite' at the correct distance from the Earth would make one revolution every 24 hours, i.e. it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the Earth's surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, would give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.' Television was in the development stage at the time, and the problem of linking television signals from one city to the next galvanized engineers worldwide. The curve of the Earth and the viable height of TV antennas generally limited signals to a 50-mile radius. Clarke predicted satellites "would make redundant the network of relay towers covering the main areas of civilization." . . . Today the high-altitude geostationary orbit, known as the Clarke Belt, is the heartland of the world's communications satellites. There are 172 commercial geostationary satellites in operation and another 81 on order.

--Mike Mills, "Orbit Wars," The Washington Post Magazine, Aug. 3 1997, pp. 12-13.

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