August 1963 Radio-Electronics
[Table of Contents]
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Electronics,
published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Clarke talks, people listen (to paraphrase the old
E.F. Hutton commercial). Mr. Clarke
wrote many books and papers about space technology and was a popular commentator
on space-related issues. He also made several predictions about the future of technology
that proved to be remarkably accurate, such as the use of geostationary satellites
for telecommunications. Clarke famously published his "Extra-Terrestrial
Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?" in a 1945 issue
of Wireless World magazine. Nearly a decade later he penned this "The Resonant
Sky" article for the August 1963 edition of Radio−Electronics magazine.
The former essay predated the 1957-1958
Year (IGY) atmospheric studies which laid the groundwork for space exploitation,
while the latter followed on the successful orbiting of a few satellites.
Basically, everything Clarke presents here has come to fruition, albeit a bit
later than he thought it might take.
... Soon Space Will Constantly Shower Us with Millions of Electronic
It is a distinct pleasure and a great privilege to introduce our readers to
one of the foremost modern science writers of the age. Arthur C. Clarke, who is
a physicist, served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, becoming technical officer
in charge of the first experimental Ground-Controlled Approach unit. He later assumed
command for the RAF. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society; he served
twice as chairman of the British Interplanetary Society. He was also first to predict
in 1945 a satellite communication system.
He is the author of 31 books, all published in the U.S. The present guest
editorial is a condensation of Chapter 16, "Voices From the Sky," of his recent
book Profiles of the Future - An Inquiry into the limits of the
Possible.* It is an extraordinarily prophetic book, recently published in England
and the U.S. and must reading for all forward-looking electronics and technical
- Hugo Gernsback
By Arthur C. Clarke
In the closing days of 1958, the President of the United States spoke for the
first time from space. It marked the dawn of a new age of communication, which will
transform the cultural, political, economic, and even linguistic patterns of our
It is simple enough to demonstrate this logically. Yet we are still, for all
our ability to pluck sound and vision from the empty air, scarcely out of the Morse-buzzer
age. Within a few years, communications satellites beyond the atmosphere will make
our present facilities seem as primitive as Indian smoke signals, and we as blind
and deaf as our grandparents before the electron tube.
Only the curious accident that the earth is surrounded by a reflecting layer
- the ionosphere - makes long-distance radio possible. This invisible mirror in
the sky reflects waves in the broadcast and short-wave bands, but its performance
is somewhat erratic and it does not function at all on the very short waves.
It is the television engineer who is most badly affected by this state of affairs.
TV programs go straight on out into space; they may be picked up beautifully on
the moon, but not in the next country (on earth).
Still more serious, it is impossible to span the oceans; they remain as great
an obstacle to TV as they were to the human voice before the invention of radio
itself. To exchange TV programs between Europe and America would require a kind
of electronic bucket chain of perhaps 50 ships moored in a line across the Atlantic,
relaying the signals from one to the other. This is not, to say the least, a very
There is a simpler answer. Just one relay station will do the job - if it is
in a satellite a few thousand miles above the earth. All that would be required
would be a receiver to pick up the signals from one continent, and a transmitter
to rebroadcast them to the other.†
And two or three such satellites, equally spaced around our planet, could provide
TV coverage from pole to pole. The clear, clean signals coming directly down from
the sky, with no background interference and no ghostly echoes picked up by reflection
from nearby buildings, would permit far higher standards of picture quality than
those we tolerate today.
To the best of my knowledge, the use of artificial satellites to provide global
TV was first proposed by myself in the October 1945 issue of the British radio journal
Wireless World. The scheme then put forward, under the title "Extraterrestrial Relays,"
envisaged the use of three satellites 22,000 miles above the equator. At this particular
height, a satellite takes exactly 24 hours to complete one orbit, and thus stays
fixed "forever" over the same pot on the earth. The laws of celestial mechanics
can thus provide us with the equivalent of invisible TV towers 22,000 miles high.
In a few years every large nation will be able to establish (or rent) its own
space-borne radio and TV transmitters, able to broadcast really high-quality programs
to the entire planet. There will be no shortage of wavelengths - as there is today
even for local services. One of the incidental advantages of satellite relays is
that they will make available vast new bands of the radio spectrum, providing "ether
space" for at least a million simultaneous TV channels, or a billion radio circuits!
The Russians could do nothing to stop their people from seeing the American way
of life. Such freedom of communication will have an ultimately overwhelming effect
on the cultural, political, and moral climate of our planet. It holds danger as
well as promise. If you doubt this, consider the following quite unimaginative extrapolation,
which might be entitled "How to Conquer the World Without Anyone Noticing."
By 1970 the USSR will have established the first high-powered satellite TV relay
above Asia, broadcasting in several languages so that more than a billion human
beings can understand the programs. At the same time, in a well organized sales
campaign spearheaded by demonstrations, Russian trade missions will have been flooding
the East with cheap, transistorized battery-powered receivers.
But let us turn aside from the political aspects of the TV satellites and look
in more detail at their domestic effects. We may see the end of the hideous antenna
arrays that have ruined the skylines of all our cities and made a mockery of architecture
for the last decade. The antennas of the future will be small, neat saucers or lens
systems like the now familiar radio telescopes. As they will lie on their backs
pointing up at the sky, they can be tucked into roofs and attics - and they will
need no tottering towers to support them high in the air.
Many will look forward, with a certain malevolent glee, to the effects of outside
competition upon commercial programs. At least a 100 million underprivileged Americans
have never known the joys of hucksterless radio or TV; they are like readers who
have become reconciled to the fact that the fifth page of every book consists of
advertisements which they are not allowed to skip. If the Russians are clever enough
to take advantage of their opportunity, they can gain an enormous audience merely
by omitting the soap and laxative announcements.
The advent of global TV and radio coverage will end, for better or worse, the
cultural and political isolation which still exists over the whole world, outside
the great cities.
The universal communication system will have a profound impact upon language.
As already suggested by me, it may lead to a single dominant tongue, others becoming
merely local dialects. More probably it will result in a bi- or tri-lingual planet;
in this respect, Switzerland may be the prototype of tomorrow's world.
All that has been described so far - even this last development - will result
from the application of existing techniques, merely made worldwide by the use of
satellite relays. It is time now to consider some of the wholly new services which
will become feasible, if we wish to exploit them.
Without going into technical details, the time will come when we will be able
to call a person anywhere on Earth, merely by dialing a number. He will be located
automatically, whether he is in mid-ocean, in the heart of a great city, or crossing
Its perils and disadvantages are obvious; there are no wholly beneficial inventions.
No one need ever again be lost, for a simple position-and-direction-finding device
could be incorporated in the receiver, based on the principle of today's radar navigational
aids. And in case of danger or accident, help could be summoned merely by pressing
an "Emergency" button.
For global phone and vision services, enabling men to confer with each other
anywhere on the planet, are only a beginning. Even now we have data-handling systems
linking together factories and offices miles apart, controlling nationwide industrial
empires. Electronics is already permitting the decentralization which rising rents
and transport costs - not to mention the threat of the mushroom cloud - encourage
more strongly every year.
The business of the future may be run by executives who are scarcely ever in
each other's physical presence. It will not even have an address or a central office
- only the equivalent of a telephone number. The time may come when half the world's
business will be transacted through vast memory banks beneath the Arizona desert,
the Mongolian steppes, the Labrador muskeg. For all spots on earth, of course, would
be equally accessible to the beams of the relay satellites: To sweep from pole to
pole would mean merely turning the directional antennas through seventeen degrees.
And so the captains of industry of the twenty-first century may live where they
please, running their affairs through computer keyboards and information-handling
machines in their homes. Administrative and executive skills are not the only ones
which would thus become independent of geography. Distance has already been abolished
for the three basic senses of sight, hearing, and touch - the latter, thanks to
the development of remote-handling devices in the atomic energy field. Any activity
which depends on these senses can, therefore, be carried out over radio circuits.
The time will certainly come when surgeons will be able to operate a world away
from their patients, and every hospital will be able to call on the services of
the best specialists, wherever they may be.
An application of satellites which has already been considered in some detail
by the astronautical engineers is what has been called the orbital post office,
which will probably make airmail obsolete in the quite near future. Modern facsimile
systems can automatically transmit and reproduce the equivalent of an entire book
in less than a minute. By using these techniques, a single satellite could handle
the whole of today's transatlantic correspondence.
A few years from now, when you wish to send an urgent message, you will purchase
the standard letter form on which you will write or type whatever you have to say.
At the local office the form will be fed into a machine which scans the marks on
the paper and converts them into electrical signals. These will be radioed to the
nearest relay satellite, routed in the appropriate direction round the earth, and
picked up at the destination where they are reproduced on a blank form identical
with the one you inscribed. The transmission itself would take a fraction of a second;
the door-to-door delivery would extend this time to several hours, but eventually
letters should never take more than a day between any two points on the earth.
Perhaps a decade beyond the orbital post office lies something even more startling
- the orbital newspaper. This will be made possible by more sophisticated descendants
of the reproducing and facsimile machines now found in most up-to-date offices.
One of these, working in conjunction with the TV set, will be able on demand to
make a permanent record of the picture flashed on the screen. Thus when you want
your daily paper, you will switch to the appropriate channel, press the right button
- and collect the latest edition as it emerges from the slot. It may be merely a
one - page news sheet; the editorials will be available on another channel - sports,
book reviews, drama, advertising, on others. We will select what we need, and ignore
the rest, thus saving whole forests for posterity.
Nor will the matter end here. Over the same circuits we will be able to conjure
up, from central libraries and information banks, copies of any document we desire
from Magna Charta to the current earth moon passenger schedules. Even books may
one day be "distributed" in this m- ner, though their format will have to be changed
drastically to make this possible.
All publishers would do well to contemplate these really staggering prospects.
Most affected will be newspapers and pocket books; practically untouched by the
coming revolution will be art volumes, and quality magazines, which involve not
only fine printing but elaborate manufacturing processes. The dailies may well tremble;
the glossy monthlies have little to fear.
Will there be time to do any work at all on a planet saturated from pole to pole
with fine entertainment, first-class music, brilliant discussions, and every conceivable
type of information service? Even now, it is claimed, our children spend a sixth
of their waking lives glued to the cathode-ray tube. We are becoming a race of watchers,
not of doers.
If this is so, then the epitaph of our race should read, in fleeting, fluorescent
letters: Whom the Gods would destroy, they first give TV.
† This was written before the launching of Telstar.
* © 1959,1962 by Arthur C. Clarke. Used bv permission of Scott Meredith
Literary Agency, Inc. and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Posted April 12, 2023