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How Telstar changed history: celebrating 50 years since the launch of the first communication satellite

It is something we take for granted, that we can turn on our television in the morning and watch the news and sport as it unfolds on the other side of the world. From my home here in Oxford, I have watched the Arab Spring, the Chilean mine rescue, the Euro 2012 football, and thousands of other events I would never otherwise have seen.

For those of us who have grown up with colour television, this has always been the case. It is easy for us to forget that this luxury has only been with us for a few decades, so today, theĀ  50th anniversary of the launch of the first commercial communications satellite Telstar 1, it is worth taking a quick look at the phenomenon of satellite communication and the era in which it arose.

The first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth was the Russian Sputnik 1, launched in October 1957. One might therefore expect the idea of satellite communication to date from the era of Sputnik and Telstar, but a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary shows a first citation of satellite in the sense ‘A man-made object placed (or designed to be placed) in orbit around an astronomical body’ from 1880, nearly 80 years earlier in a translation of Jules Verne‘s The Begum’s Fortune.

Of course, Telstar is a very different satellite to those whose signals we use today, both in its technology and its flight. It follows an elliptical orbit that is not geosynchronous. This means that instead of always appearing in the same spot in the sky, it completes an orbit of the earth every 2 hours and 37 minutes, and when in use it could only continuously relay signals across the Atlantic for a twenty minute period of that orbit. During its first public airing, however, it still carried pictures to Europe of a baseball game, the Statue of Liberty, and a press conference featuring President Kennedy.

The OED gives the year of Telstar’s launch as the year of first citation for 425 entries. 1962 saw the first recorded appearance in print of the British 1960s icons, the Mini-moke and Coronation Street, but surprisingly few new words from the field of space exploration. LEM (‘Lunar Excursion Module’) and de-orbit (verb) both have more application in the lunar programme than in satellite communication. Fortunately, Telstar was able to operate for more than seven months before falling permanent victim to, a glitch, another word that OED records first in 1962.

We, in 2012, owe a lot to the engineers behind Telstar and other early satellites. A chilling OED entry from 1962 is Nam, referring to Vietnam and in particular the Vietnam War. Without communications satellites would the world have seen that conflict through the same unfiltered lens, and would the history of the 1960s and subsequent decades have been the same?

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