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Telstar satellite's important legacy, 50 years on

07/10/2012 05:12 EDT | Updated 09/09/2012 05:12 EDT
Fifty years ago I could have watched the first live TV programs transmitted by satellite. That satellite was Telstar.

I could have listened to the first single by a British band to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. That song was Telstar, performed by The Tornados.

And I could have shopped at a newly opened pharmacy in my hometown of Calgary. Its name was Telstar Drugs.

1962 was the year of Telstar.

The satellite was deployed on July 10, an event that had been anticipated for months. In March, The Toronto Telegram said Telstar would "propel man into the age of satellite communications."

On launch day, The New York Times called it "the forerunner of a revolutionary global communications system" and CBC News said it was "the first step in worldwide television."

The Toronto Star later described Telstar as "one of the most significant advances in communications since the telephone was invented" in 1876.

NASA sends Telstar into orbit

On July 10, 1962, at 4:30 a.m. ET a three-stage Thor Delta rocket took off from NASA's Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida with the 77-kg Telstar satellite on board.

It's a fraction the size of today's communications satellites. For example, Echostar XVII, which went into space July 5, weighed 6,100 kg. In Canada, Explornet Communications will use the Echostar satellite to provide high-speed broadband to rural Canada.

Telstar was "tremendously important," Vincent Mosco, professor emeritus at Queen's University, said in an interview with CBC News. Before Telstar, "people hadn't seen what satellites could do for them in their everyday lives," he noted.

Mosco explained that Telstar provided the first demonstration of what was now possible, "bringing the world to your living room."

Telstar's many historic firsts

A day after the launch was a day of historic firsts for Telstar. The first telephone call transmitted by satellite was between Fred Kappel, the Chairman of AT&T, which owned Telstar, and U.S. Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. The one-minute, 42-second call began with Kappel in Andover, Maine saying, "Good evening, Mr. Vice President." Johnson was in a Washington auditorium surrounded by dignitaries, with cameras rolling.

The first images were transmitted moments later at 7:31 p.m. ET by the Andover Earth Station, which showed their U.S. flag fluttering in the breeze. The flag video was seen in France.

Next up was the first fax via satellite, in which a photo of Telstar was transmitted. The media were onlookers but none of that was for public consumption.

The first video from Europe transmitted to the U.S. was from France, featuring Yves Montand singing La Chansonette. Then the British followed with what AT&T later called "dry understatements" from engineers.

The British were reported to be furious with the French for "a clear breach of faith" for broadcasting entertainment.

First TV program via satellite

There was a plan for a special broadcast from both Europe and North America and the British thought their neighbours had jumped the gun.

That broadcast would take place July 23. Legendary BBC anchor Richard Dimbleby would host from Europe and Walter Cronkite of CBS and Chet Huntley of NBC would co-host from the U.S.

Dimbleby began the broadcast around 3 p.m. ET with, "Hello, Walter Cronkite. Hello, United States. On my television screen here in Brussels, they are both together as clear, so go America, go. Go America, go."

"Good evening, Europe," Cronkite responded.

The 18-minute North American program was a joint production of the three American networks and the CBC. It began with a baseball game then underway at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

TV broadcast from Canada

From Canada there were scenes from Niagara Falls, Quebec City and a scene from Macbeth on stage at the Stratford Festival, featuring Christopher Plummer and Kate Reid.

The best remembered part of the American content was a live press conference in which president John F. Kennedy talked about gold prices. Perhaps according to plan, the price of the U.S. dollar immediately strengthened.

The length of the broadcast was dictated by the time the satellite was in position to communicate with both Europe and North America, about 25 minutes.

During Telstar's next orbit, the European program was broadcast to North America. It featured a London bobby talking to American tourists, with Big Ben in the background, an outdoor opera in Rome, inside the Louvre in Paris, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and even a scene from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Reception was described as excellent, the broadcast a technical success. A new era in television broadcasting had begun. Star TV critic Jeremy Brown said the program gave him "a sense of elation at this latest electronic marvel."

Cronkite later described it as, "that rarest of all television moments, the kind that compels viewers to lean forward and stare in a primal wonder and amazement at their screens."

A big step had been taken toward Marshall McLuhan's global village, which he first wrote about in The Gutenberg Galaxy, published the same year.

Telstar's demise

Another relatively new technology would be Telstar's undoing. The day before the launch, the U.S. had conducted Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear weapons test.

Radiation from that blast and others damaged Telstar's fragile transistors. It went out of service in December, was temporarily restarted in January but additional transistor failure meant Telstar's last emission was on Feb. 21, 1963.

Eugene O'Neill, who directed the Telstar project at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which developed Telstar for AT&T, said in a 2001 interview that, "The first satellite was never pretended to be anything but experimental, and we were delighted that it lasted six months."

Telstar is still up there, 50 years later, orbiting the globe about every 158 minutes. Its legacy is that "it brought people closer together," according to Mosco.

The Telstar communications program did that because, "it deepened and extended networks around the globe that put people in contact with one another." Mosco added that the program also had a major impact on the growth of transnational corporations by making possible much faster exchange of large amounts of data and information.

Mosco has also held research positions with the White House Office of Telecommunication Policy and the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and Canada's old Department of Communications.

Telstar a result of public-private cooperation

In Mosco's view, "What we can learn from the development of Telstar is that government has an important role to play, has succeeded and can still succeed in managing large-scale projects that are central to national and international development.

His remarks echo Kennedy's at that 1962 press conference, before the Telstar broadcast picked it up as part of the live show. Kennedy said that his government was "glad to participate" in Telstar, which was "developed by private industry and launched by government in admirable co-operation."

Private-public co-operation is evident in one of the current communications technology challenges in Canada: high-speed internet for rural and remote locations.

Xplornet Communications calls itself "Canada's leading rural broadband provider," and purchased all the Canadian capacity on that Echostar satellite launched last week, as well as on a satellite launched last year.

John Maduri, the CEO, told CBC News that while "Telstar was an incredible accomplishment," it's broadband that "has more impact, both to rural Canadians who need those services" — like education, e-healthcare, participation in the global economy — "but it's also the impact on the fabric of the country, because if we are going to be a digital power, if we are going to be a first tier player in digital, then 100 per cent of Canadians need to have access."

Rural Canadians need broadband

Maduri gave two reasons. First, there is the impact on rural Canadians themselves of those internet services, and the online entertainment options, including TV. As well, Canada's reliance on natural resources and industries like agriculture, forestry, mining and oil and gas means that "a good portion of Canada's GDP occurs in rural and remote parts of this country and we cannot leave them behind."

The federal government is assisting Xplornet in deploying broadband through a program called, "Broadband Canada: Connecting Rural Canadians."

The program is providing $225 million for extending broadband coverage to communities that have been unserved and underserved for internet access "by encouraging the private development of rural broadband infrastructure."

The federal government says it "provides up to 50 percent of eligible project costs for Internet Service Providers that have been selected to deploy broadband infrastructure and services" in those areas.

Maduri says Xplornet is already seeing evidence of the importance of broadband for economic and social development in increased employment and more businesses in rural areas after broadband becomes available. "Rural Canadians need broadband as much as, if not more, than their urban counterparts," he said.

In a few weeks, when families of Canadian athletes watch live broadcasts of their relative competing at the London Olympics, especially if they are doing so online in rural Canada, they can thank a little satellite named Telstar for getting the ball rolling.

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