The day Arthur C. Clarke helped invent the future

Arthur C. Clarke's 1945 sketch
NASA
The great author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke is best known to millions of sci-fin fans for writing "2001: A Space Odyssey." Less well-known is the role he played in popularizing the (then radical) idea of a network of communications satellites that would be in orbit around the earth.

On this date in 1945, Clarke first offered his ideas in the form of a paper titled "The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications" that he circulated privately. Clarke would follow up a few months later with a piece published in Wireless World.

This was an amazingly prescient prediction. Remember, this was back in 1945, when the world's attention was still sifting through the rubble left over from World War 2. But Clarke didn't get it entirely right. Transistors had yet to be invented and so he failed to realize just how quickly the proposal for a fleet of communications satellites would come true. (Sputnik launched in 1957.) Clarke thought his vision would be predicated on the construction of a space station whose crews would periodically have to replace used vacuum tubes.

"There are a number of possible arrangements.for such a chain but that shown is the simplest," he wrote. "The stations would lie in the earth's equatorial plane and would thus always remain fixed in the same spots in the sky, from the point of view of terrestrial observers. Unlike all other heavenly bodies they would never rise nor set. This would greatly simplify the use of directive receivers installed on the earth."

Elsewhere, he noted that "ultimately the chain will be used extensively for controlling and checking, possibly by radar, the movement of ships approaching or leaving the earth. It will also play an extremely important role as the first link in the solar communication system."

By the late 1950s, the U.S. - first under the auspices of the Department of Defense and then later at NASA - created its own communications satellite research and development programs. More than six decades later, Clarke's intellectual contribution to that history stands out, one reason why there have been various attempts to rename the geosynchronous orbit around Earth as the "Clarke Orbit."

You can find both papers here. (Hat tip to Wired for the pointer.)

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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