Monday, July 29, 2013

The Syncom satellites and Arthur C. Clarke

The LA Times ran a cool article on the development of the Syncomm satellites. Syncom 1 failed, but Syncom 2, which was launched 50 years ago on July 26, 1963, succeded in transmitting voice and image-only TV, and President Kennedy used it for a call to the Prime Minister of Nigeria in August 1963. Syncom 3, which launched August 19, 1964 was used to telecast the 1964 Olympic Games.

The Times article describes the three Syncom engineers, shown below, and their project.

The Times article relates the trouble they had selling the project, but in retrospect, it ended up being a very small investment that launched an industry and re-shaped global culture. (It was similar to the Internet in that respect). The article also contains an interactive graphic showing the satellites currently in orbit.

My only criticism of the article is that it gives the impression that the lead engineer, Harold Rosen, was the first to conceive of a geostationary communication satellite. That concept was suggested by others and fleshed out and popularized as a communication tool by the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in a 1945 letter to the editor and subsequent article in Wireless World Magazine. This graph, from Clarke's article, shows the equilibrium altitude for a geosynchronous satellite:

So, in addition to reading the LA Times article, I'd recommend checking these out:

Time flies -- the Earth now has a fiber-optic nervous system that far outstrips communication satellite capacity. That would have been hard to predict in 1963, but if you think Arthur C. Clarke would have been surprised, read his book on the cabling of The Earth, How the World Was One.