I can't say how moved I am at Arthur Clarke's death.
Science fiction caught me young, especially the sort which holds a mirror to our faces and frames us in the stars above. Arthur Clarke was the exemplar of that sort of science fiction: he produced clear-eyed, populist, exciting work that dealt with the transcendental in humanity without sentiment or excess. Or decent dialogue, but you can get that by the yard from the navel-gazing mainstream.
Yet this is a technology blog. So it is fitting that Clarke's best memorial is a small, drum-shaped box containing the finest technology of the mid-60s could produce, mutely orbiting 22,300 miles above the equator. Early Bird was launched on the 14th April 1965 and entered service on the 28th June, perfectly bracketing the birth of yours truly and the captaincy of James T Kirk. I blame astrology. It was the first geosynchronous TV communications satellite – and the first to realise an idea that Clarke published in Wireless World in October 1945.
Neatly combining his experiences in radio and radar research in the war and his pathological fascination with space, his paper proposed a network of just three artificial satellites in just the right orbits, covering the world with television signals. At the right height, their orbital period would be 24 hours – and so, unlike any other astronomical objects, they'd never move in the sky.
It took twenty years for the idea to catch on; even after the first satellites demonstrated that space communications was not only possible but compulsive, the difficulties in pushing something that far away from the earth and then keeping it running made such ideas seem impossibly expensive and unfeasible. But a whole host of developments changed infeasible to inevitable: the transistor rapidly evolved, displacing the power-hungry, massive, unreliable thermionic valve. Rockets grew in power and capability. And television, still a novelty at the time of Clarke's idea, became one of the most profitable and exciting mass communication industries on a planet still intoxicated by new technology.
It was also something useful to do with rockets and electronics that wouldn't blow us all to kingdom come, something all too likely if we didn't talk to each other as much as possible.
Early Bird could only carry 240 telephone channels – back then, there was a reason why long-distance phone calls were expensive – or a single television channel. But it worked, and brought the reality of a shockingly audacious technology into the front rooms of the world.
It also made the cover of Time. On Friday 14th April, 1965, the magazine carried a long and prescient article about the significance – political, commercial and cultural – of the satellite, and one which is well worth reading nearly 43 years later. In particular, it predicted "Data transmission will bring the skills of giant computers to anyone who needs them. The computers themselves will join forces in a vast network, and automation of industry will become an international reality."
There's more: "A World Information Center will catalogue and make available the expanding mass of information now threatening to swamp the world's libraries. With easy access to the center by satellite-relayed phone calls from any spot on earth and with computers programmed to do their tedious reference hunting for them, researchers will save countless man-hours as they make use of all the recorded knowledge of the human race."
Time also asked Clarke what he thought, and reported: "One of Clarke's more frightening thoughts is that every man on earth will eventually have his own telephone number and will carry personal apparatus that will permit him to be called, even by people who have no idea where he may be." He also predicted the end of cities – if people didn't have to physically meet up, why would they choose to? Up to a point, Sir Arthur, up to a point.
Early Bird was only supposed to be in service for around 18 months. In the event, it was in continuous use for nearly four years. It was turned off in January 1969, but briefly resurrected in June when another satellite failed and its support was needed for Apollo 11. Since then, it has been on standby – with one exception, in 1990, when it was turned back on for our 25th birthday.
I hope someone stirs it from its dreams to tell it about Arthur.
Enough about the technology. He said in his 90th birthday broadcast that he was sometimes asked how he wanted to be remembered, after his diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. "Of all these, I want to be remembered most as as writer who entertained readers and hopefully stretched their imaginations as well." This reader remembers him just so.
He finished with a quote from Kipling.
"If I have given you delight with all that I have done, let me lie quiet in that night which shall be yours anon. And for the little, little span the dead are borne in mind, seek not to question other than the books I leave behind."