Communications satellites are so much a part of our lives that we hardly think of them, but just 50 years ago, they didn’t exist—until Telstar 1. Launched on the morning of 10 July 1962 aboard a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, the 77-kilogram, solar-cell-covered sphere carried the first live transatlantic TV feed—a test signal sent between the ground stations at Andover, Maine, and Pleumeur-Bodou, France. On 23 July, TV viewers got their first glimpse of Telstar’s capabilities when networks in North America and Europe broadcast part of a major league baseball game, followed by remarks from President John F. Kennedy. Among Telstar 1’s other firsts: the first telephone call to be relayed through space, as well as the first fax.
The satellite was designed and built at AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., which also paid for its US $3 million launch. Radiation produced by U.S. and Soviet high-altitude nuclear tests eventually fried Telstar 1’s electronics. Though it went off line in February 1963, it’s still in orbit.
This vintage documentary, from the AT&T Archives, has some great footage from the launch and the first TV transmissions:
The IEEE History Center’s Global History Network also has a number of oral histories and first-hand accounts from the engineers and researchers who built Telstar, including Eugene O’Neill, John Pierce, and Milton B. Punnett. And for those of you who will be in Washington, D.C., this Thursday, the National Air and Space Museum will host an afternoon symposium on Telstar and the birth of global communication. The symposium will also be carried live on the Web.
Producer: Audio Productions, Inc.
Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ