Radio and television broadcasting were changed forever on a summer afternoon
in 1962. Everybody realized it then; hardly anyone cares or remembers today.
(This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on July 23, 2020. It has been edited and amended prior to submission to TALKERS.)
By Mark Wainwright
SYRACUSE — Instant worldwide audio/video communication is a routine, taken‐for‐granted aspect of our lives; we can hold the technology in our hands and access it anytime. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that this was the stuff of science fiction. By the early 1960’s, live worldwide radio had been around for decades. With a combination of shortwave transmission and some intricate international phone links, you could get a radio broadcast from just about anywhere to just about anyplace. There were limitations, and the audio quality wasn’t great, but it could be done. The bandwidth demands of “broadcast‐quality” television, however, were a much higher hurdle.
Engineers at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories (in cooperation with European colleagues) had been working on the problem for years, and their efforts were put to the test on July 10, 1962, when NASA launched the first Telstar satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida. She ‐‐ I can’t explain why, but I’ve always thought of Telstar as female ‐‐ was about 35 inches in diameter, weighed about 170 pounds, and was crammed with what was cutting‐edge technology for 1962, all designed to receive electronic signals from one side of the Atlantic, then amplify and relay the signals to the other side.
Even so, the technology of the time could only do so much. NASA’s booster rockets were still very early in their development, and Telstar could not reach enough altitude to be “geosynchronous” and stay in the same spot above the earth. Telstar would orbit the earth every 2 hours and 37 minutes, but she was only “visible” for about 30 minutes over the Atlantic each orbit, and her ability to relay signals would be several minutes shorter.
This created a serious challenge. Bell Laboratories and their European partners had to build a network of ground stations with enormous tracking, telemetry, and signal relay antennas… and since Telstar was rapidly moving through the sky, all of those huge antennas had to move and follow her path precisely, or else the signal would be lost. Nonetheless, the launch was successful, and the early test transmissions were encouraging; one evening, viewers in North America were treated to a few moments of French star Yves Montand crooning a ballad on a late‐night variety show… and it was televised live from France! Could this really work on demand?
We would soon find out The big broadcast was set for the afternoon and evening of July 23rd, and there was massive interest on both sides of the Atlantic. This was a very big deal for the big three American TV networks. NBC, CBS, and ABC (along with Canada’s CBC) would all carry the program live. The BBC and the other European broadcast services were equally committed. The broadcast would be in two parts, with the afternoon portion originating from the U.S. and Canada, then on Telstar’s next orbit, Europe would send their program back to us; this was done so the American segment would air in Europe during their prime time, while the European feed would come our way during our evening hours. Walter Cronkite of CBS and Chet Huntley of NBC were named as co‐anchors, with ABC’s Howard K. Smith posted at the United Nations. This was as serious as it gets.
Meanwhile, in the Wainwright household in Baltimore, a very young (emphasis on “very” and “young”) radio enthusiast was on pins and needles awaiting the moment. I had become addicted to radio and all facets of broadcasting from the time I could walk, and combined with the interest American kids had in the space race back then ‐‐ John Glenn had orbited the earth only a few months before ‐‐ I knew my summer vacation that year would be marked by the event. In fact, I saw that early, brief glimpse of Yves Montand on my sister’s television upstairs. I was impressed and amazed and expressed my feelings openly (I recall my family was amused and somewhat annoyed by my reaction).
The moment arrived on the afternoon of July 23rd. I sat in rapt attention in front of our family’s old RCA black‐and‐white TV as Cronkite and Huntley introduced various segments: Several minutes of President Kennedy’s news conference, scenes from the Space Needle at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, and a couple of Canadian segments.
However, the most memorable moment for me was a quick view of a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies. And that later brought about a wonderful sports trivia question: Who was the first major league player to register a base hit seen on live, transoceanic TV? It was Philadelphia’s Johnny Callison (I think he stole a base and scored a run later that inning).
Strangely, the second portion coming from Europe didn’t have the same impact on me, even though ‐‐ as a broadcasting milestone ‐‐ it was the larger accomplishment from an American perspective. Probably because the American content was so much more familiar to me, and my initial excitement had tapered off a bit. Telstar ‐‐ later officially known as Telstar 1 ‐‐ led to other communications satellite launches, and only a few years later, NASA was able to put geosynchronous satellites into orbit; these made live worldwide television possible 24 hours a day. There have been so many of these launched over the years that we now have a virtual traffic jam 22,236 miles (the geosynchronous altitude) above the Earth. NASA and other agencies keep a close eye on all of them.
And what of Telstar 1? She did her duty honorably, relaying hundreds of radio and TV programs, phone calls, images, telegrams, and computer data packages before she ran into difficulty in late 1962. She was battered by radiation (sadly, much of it was the result of nuclear weapons testing by the U.S. and the Soviet Union), and her voice was finally silenced on February 21, 1963. And yet…
She’s still out there! She’s still orbiting, smiling down on us every 2‐and‐a‐half hours. NASA continues to track her, probably with some affection and pride. What stories she could tell…
Since I first wrote this article, several people have mentioned the work of the late Arthur C. Clarke, the brilliant futurist and science fiction author, who was one of the first to envision the idea of geosynchronous satellites for worldwide broadcasting. In October of 1945, he published a paper in the British journal “Wireless World,” where he proposed a system of three satellites that could link to each other and to ground stations to relay signals worldwide, and almost instantaneously. Here, from the International Telecommunications Union, is a link to an overview of his article.
Meanwhile, there are countless pieces of audio and video available about the events of 7/23/62. Some are just scraps, others are quite extensive. Spend just a few moments searching YouTube, and you’ll end up with a massive trove of material. Here is just one example, a segment of the “NBC Nightly News” from July 10, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the launch.
Mark Wainwright is a voiceover artist and former talk radio host who most recently served with WSYR-AM, Syracuse. Email him at: email@example.com.