The company commemorated Telstar’s 50th anniversary at its Murray Hill facility on July 10, 2012, with Walter Brown, one of the original team members, attending.
The anniversary has made international news because Telstar ushered in an era of global communications, until then unimagined. And the innovations that enabled its invention come from New Jersey. Celebrations have been held at the Smithsonian and also in England and France.
Many people have opinions about why AT&T;’s Bell Labs created so much innovation back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. At the recent New Jersey Technology Council annual meeting, Jon Gertner, author of Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, said the combination of Bell Labs as a monopoly and its ability to get smart researchers from different disciplines to rub elbows with one another enhanced the culture of innovation there.
As Bell Labs archivist Ed Eckert said in his blog post, 50 years ago Bell Labs worked with the U.S. government to solve a perplexing challenge: how to send television signals across the ocean.
He pointed out that transatlantic signals were already being sent over underwater cable, but that didn’t support television, the broadband of its day. TV was transmitted by microwave towers, which needed a clear line of site.
John Pierce, then a Bell Labs researcher, had the idea to “bounce” microwaves to make them travel greater distances. He published that idea in a scientific journal in 1955, according to an account by IEEE archivist Sheldon Hochheiser in Today’s Engineer, an IEEE publication.
Pierce then convinced AT&T; management to proceed with the project. The team was led by Eugene F. O’Neill, who assembled more than 400 people at Bell Labs to work on Telstar. The project cost about $50 million.
Eckert said in his blog that many other emerging technologies were critical in making Telstar a success. For example, Telstar needed 1,000 transistors, invented by Bell Labs in 1947, to work properly. Solar cells, invented at the labs in 1954, were essential to power the satellite.
The satellite was launched atop a NASA Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962. Telstar would receive microwave radio signals from a ground station, amplify them and rebroadcast them, Hochheiser recalled.
“The team calculated an orbital path that the rocket could reach, and located an ideal site for the U.S. ground station near Andover, Maine, far from the urban clutter of radio signals.” The team also worked with “British and French telecommunications authorities as partners who then built and staffed ground stations at Goonhilly Downs and Pleumeur-Bodou on their respective western coasts,” Hochheiser said.
After the event, NJTechWeekly.com asked Brown, who is now at Lehigh University, if he was aware at the time that he was working on something that would change communications history. He answered via email: “I certainly did realize that what we were working to achieve would be a major milestone in worldwide communication — if it worked.”
“I didn’t have a very wise view of just how broad an impact it would have,” Brown went on to say. “I was sharply focused on making sure the part of the project I had responsibility for, the radiation experiments on Telstar, provided information that would be useful in the design of future satellite missions. Fortunately, the main communication demonstrations and the information on radiation in space and its influence on satellite reliability were a success.”
Brown noted that, 50 years later, he still remembers the incredible wave of joy that swept over him at Andover when Telstar I turned on and an image of the American flag was transmitted across the Atlantic.
Telstar carried 600 voice calls and one black-and-white television channel. On July 12, 1962, the satellite carried the first transatlantic TV signal, from the Andover Earth Station in northwestern Maine to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center in Brittany, France.
Telstar achieved many firsts: it was the first active, direct-relay communications satellite; it successfully transmitted the first television pictures, telephone calls, high-speed data communications and fax images through space; and it hosted the first live transatlantic television feed.
The size of a large beach ball, it weighed about 170 pounds and was powered by 3,600 solar cells. It is still in orbit today, although it went out of service in 1963, replaced by successive generations of Telstar satellites.