Technology : He wrote the future : Nature : Nature Research
Arthur C. Clarke, 16 décembre 1917 - 19 mars 2008
In 1945, Clarke inadvertently launched a career as a futurologist with his outline for a geostationary communications satellite. In a letter (’V2 for ionosphere research?’) published in February’s issue of Wireless World and inspired by the German V2 rockets then landing on London, he made a revolutionary proposal:
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, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.
Clarke realistically concluded: “I’m afraid this isn’t going to be of the slightest use to our postwar planners, but I think it is the ultimate solution to the problem.” He followed up with a more detailed piece in Wireless World that October, envisioning “space-stations” that relied on thermionic valves serviced by an onboard crew supplied by atomic-powered rockets.
The first commercial communications satellite, Telstar I, was built by Bell Telephone Laboratories and launched in 1962. The first to be geostationary, the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Intelsat I (’Early Bird’), went up in 1965. Both launched on conventional rockets, and operated with transistors and without human maintenance. The two US engineers chiefly responsible — John Pierce for Telstar and Harold Rosen for Intelsat — saw Clarke as the father of satellite communications. Richard Colino, director-general of Intelsat (the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) agreed in his foreword to a collection of Clarke’s technical writings, Ascent to Orbit (1984). Clarke preferred “godfather”, noting with uncharacteristic modesty in the book that he had received “rather more of the credit, I suspect, than I really deserve”. In old age, however, he told me that his comsat article was “the most important thing I ever wrote”.
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