Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The spinning beach ball that shrunk the world

There is a theory, I am happy to relay, raised by one of David Bowie’s biographers suggesting that the Dame’s periodic interest in matters extra-terrestrial (take your pick from Space Oddity, Starman and Ziggy Stardust in its entirety, Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, Hello Spaceboy…) stems from the 1962 hit Telstar by The Tornados.

The Tornados were of their time, a bequiffed instrumental band featuring George Bellamy (father of Muse’s Matt) and put together by producer Joe Meek, the blueprint for music impresarios from Brian Epstein to Simon Cowell. Like fellow instrumentalists The Shadows, they were something of a backing band performing a heavily anglicised form of the US surf sound, a clean-cut twang unlikely to hitch up anyone’s petticoats in uproar as it sat alongside other anodyne pre-Beatles and Stones chart fodder like Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore and Breaking Up Is Hard To Do by Neil Sedaka, both hits in the same year.

The Tornados' hit was inspired by the launch -  50 years ago today - of Telstar 1, the satellite that would herald the modern era of communications - international telephone calls, data transmission and even transcontinental television broadcasting.

Telstar's launch on July 10, 1962 was part of the 'can do' sentiment of the times. It was, let's not forget, only 17 years since the end of World War II. Much of the world was still emerging from the austerity global conflict had imposed upon it. America was, to non-Americans at least, a land of shiny opportunity, of gleaming white household appliances and housewives with gleaming white teeth, of large cars with rocket-like fins on them.

This was a time of unrelenting possibility. The space race was already in flight, and the previous year US President John F Kennedy had told Congress: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth".

The phrase "live by satellite" had yet to be invented. Telstar changed all that. Developed by NASA together with a team of scientists at Bell Labs - then part of American telecoms giant AT&T - Telstar enabled the first translantic transmission of phone calls along with one single black-and-white TV channel.

This may not seem much of a revolution now, with our thousands of TV channels coming at us via the Internet, but 50 years ago this was a breakthrough in communications as profound as Abraham Darby sparking the Industrial Revolution in a Shropshire village, 260 years before.

Think of the world events we've witnessed as a result of trans-continental satellite communications: Neil Armstrong fulfilling Kennedy's lunar dream, World Cups, Royal Weddings, both Gulf Wars kicking off, Nelson Mandela walking free, presidents being elected, the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters proving that space is still not a conquered frontier, Live Aid and Live 8 - this list goes on forever, and at risk of rewriting Billy Joel's
We Didn't Start The Fire, you can complete it yourself with your own moments of epoch creation.

I've walked past Telstar 1, suspended from the lobby ceiling of Bell Labs' facility in Murray Hill, a small New Jersey community not far from New York City. I was amazed to see that it was not much bigger than a beach ball, weighing just 170lbs (77kg) and looking like R2D2's head attached to another R2D2 head to create a sphere.

Once in orbit 30,000 miles above the Equator, Telstar achieved the right 'line-of-sight' between an earth station in Andover, Maine in the US and a relay station in Pleumeur-Bodou in France and another at the BBC's spooky facility on Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, England. And so, the first live transatlantic television broadcast was made, leading to many more firsts before the satellite was decommissioned the following year after a short but significant orbit.

I do, of course, have a vested interest in celebrating Bell Labs' remarkable breakthrough, in that the research institution is now a part of Alcatel-Lucent, whom I work for today.

But I raise my hat for other reasons: we take technological breakthrough for granted today: the fact that the phone in your  pocket is more powerful than the computers that put Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon will inevitably get lost as you indulge another round of
Angry Birds. But 50 years ago, the transmission of a very grainy press conference by JFK from one side of the world to another should be regarded as a feat as remarkable as anything else in human endeavour.

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