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The Resonant Sky
August 1963 Radio-Electronics

August 1963 Radio-Electronics

August 1963 Radio-Electronics Cover - RF Cafe[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.

When Arthur C. 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 International Geophysical 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 Messages ...

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 readers.

- Hugo Gernsback

Typical extra-terrestrial relay services, Arthur C. Clarke in Wireless World - RF CafeBy 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 world.

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 practical solution.

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 the Sahara.

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

Werbel Microwave (power dividers, couplers)

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Kirt Blattenberger,


RF Cafe began life in 1996 as "RF Tools" in an AOL screen name web space totaling 2 MB. Its primary purpose was to provide me with ready access to commonly needed formulas and reference material while performing my work as an RF system and circuit design engineer. The World Wide Web (Internet) was largely an unknown entity at the time and bandwidth was a scarce commodity. Dial-up modems blazed along at 14.4 kbps while tying up your telephone line, and a nice lady's voice announced "You've Got Mail" when a new message arrived...

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