As You Watch World Events Unfold on TV, Thank Telstar
Every time we watch a TV news reporter speaking to us live from another part of the world, as he or she files a report or speaks with the anchor in the TV studio — we rarely, if ever, bother to consider the technology that brings that report to us, with its clear, instantaneous picture and crisp sound, allowing us to witness and almost feel an event as it happens in a remote part of the country, or on the other side of the planet. Whether we’re watching a Royal wedding, the Olympics, or the harrowing tragedies in Ukraine, this is all thanks to several generations of satellites that can be traced back to the original Telstar.
And from the first moment it began relaying messages across the Atlantic 60 years ago, it was a big deal.
On July 10, 1962, the Telstar communication satellite, built by Bell Labs and launched by NASA, achieved an orbit 3,000 miles above the North Atlantic. The 350-pound device had to wait until its sixth orbit to achieve line-of-sight range with an AT&T tracking antenna in Andover Maine, which then sent an image of an American flag (with the dome-shaped antenna in the background) to the satellite. Telstar then bounced the image to an antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey for broadcast across the United States. Strains of “America The Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” accompanied the live image.
On the following orbit, a new image was transmitted to receiving antennas in England and France, thus achieving history’s first intercontinental live television feed. The first images those countries saw were of Vice President Lyndon Johnson and other officials as they watched the event from Washington, D.C.
The event — five years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — was hailed as the biggest advance in communications since Morse’s telegraph. In fact, all three major TV networks interrupted their programming to televise the successful experiment live. The next day, newspapers such as The New York Times devoted front page headlines to the feat.
Another milestone took place on that seventh orbit, i.e. the first two-way phone conversation via satellite, between Johnson and Frederick R. Kappel, Chairman of the Board of AT&T. And, although it was technically a “domestic” call, Telstar ushered in the era of direct, transatlantic and trans-global phone calls.
Telstar 2 was launched a year later, on May 7, 1963.
However, what the coverage of this epic event failed to note at the time — and what historians have almost unanimously overlooked in the years since — is the long-forgotten but astounding fact that the signal of a live television picture first crossed the Atlantic from England to America on February 8, 1928 — almost thirty-five years before Telstar’s launch. The man who could rightfully be called the Father of Television, John Logie Baird, was responsible for the achievement, adding yet another to his impressive list of television firsts.
On that February day in 1928, a man and woman sat in Baird’s London laboratory, facing his image transmitter. Via short wave transmission, and using a mere two kilowatts of power, their wispy images faintly appeared on a Baird-developed TV screen in Hartsdale, New York. The feat, described as “vision sound,” was witnessed by: O.G. Hutchinson, the managing director of the Baird Company, who made the overseas trip to prepare for the experiment; Benjamin Clapp, a Baird technician; R.M. Hart, owner of the short wave station 2CVJ, and a reporter from the Associated Press.
The New York Times printed the reporter’s account on its front page the next day: “The images were crude, imperfect, broken, but they were images none the less. Man’s vision had spanned the ocean; transatlantic television was a demonstrated reality, and one more great dream of science was on the way to realization…
“When the televisor, a black box compact enough to be carried around in a taxi, had done its work with this rhythmic rumble from across the sea the vision gradually built themselves up of tiny oblongs of light suspended in a whirling rectangle of brilliance in the machine’s gaping mouth. These oblongs shifted and swirled.
“The vision of the man on the London end came through in a form suggestive of a Jack-o-lantern, but a Jack-o-lantern that could turn its head from side to side and open its mouth. The vision of the woman appeared broken and scattered, but it still was plain that she was a woman and that she was showing first the full face and then the profile. The image itself was weak and ill-defined, but the image of the two subjects was clear enough for the team in Hartsdale to make out their faces, and the woman’s profile as she turned her head.”
A New York Times editorial promptly praised Baird and predicted great things for television. “His images were crude; they were scarcely recognizable; they faded and reappeared as the atmospheric conditions varied; but they were the beginnings of a new branch of engineering which is destined to convert the earth into something like a planetary motion picture house in which whole populations will follow flickering reproductions of remotely occurring events on a screen.”
To put this feat in some chronological perspective; Baird, working alone in his simple laboratory, beat Telstar at transmitting live moving images overseas by more than three decades; and, of course, he did so without NASA’s help, and only two years after Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket.
Of course, Telstar truly brought the world of mass communications into the Space Age with its achievement. Today, there are over 2,200 communications satellites in Earth orbit, some of which trace a path just over 22,000 miles above the equator (known as a geostationary orbit, which matches the rotation rate of the Earth, causing the satellite to appear as a motionless, fixed point in space from our perspective, so ground attennas don’t have to track it across the sky). The first geostationary satellite was Syncom 3, launched on August 19, 1964, and used for communication across the Pacific starting with television coverage of the 1964 Summer Olympics.
The science of communication satellites expanded quickly from the mid-1960s onward, and we have reaped the rewards without ever needing to master the technological principles behind it. But as we listen to our radios, and watch breaking news events from all over the world on any given day, it’s worth a brief moment to acknowledge Telstar 1 and 2 (both are still in orbit, but no longer functioning) for the privilege.
Oh, yes, and a big thanks to a true genius ahead of his time, Mr. Baird.
Until next time…
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Other television-related articles of mine that might be of interest to you:
“A Brief History of the Olympics on Television, Part 1” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-brief-history-of-the-olympics-on-television-part-1-d01005318fc4
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor?” https://medium.com/@garryberman/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://medium.com/@garryberman/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“A Mother’s Day Tribute to our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/a-mothers-day-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-68f9122538a8
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
“Comedy to Die For: When Death Rears it’s Head in Sitcoms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/comedy-to-die-for-when-death-rears-its-head-in-sitcoms-7a51cb0acc32
“Saying Goodbye to ‘Modern Family’” https://medium.com/@garryberman/saying-good-bye-to-modern-family-73897235416d
“No Laughs, Please: Our Greatest Comedians as Dramatic Actors” https://medium.com/@garryberman/no-laughs-please-37fdf614e85a
“Fifty Years of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV (pt. 1)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/fifty-years-of-the-odd-couple-on-tv-part-i-62a0eac93520
“My Funny Valentine: Comedy’s Real-life Married Couples” https://medium.com/@garryberman/my-funny-valentine-comedys-real-life-married-couples-1f0605e2caca
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