History, Music, Science

Telstar: “The Electronic Bridge”

Sixty-one years ago today, on July 23, 1962, a small (less than 36 inches in diameter) satellite which orbited the earth once about every two-and-a-half hours, transmitted–simultaneously and at the same time–the first of two scheduled, scripted, public transatlantic television programs onto home screens throughout the Western world. For the first time ever,  families could sit in their living rooms and view, in real time, what was happening in another country.

The broadcast of America, July 23, 1962, in which sixteen nations participated, was limited to about 30 minutes (while the satellite was available to the huge ground antennae in the US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Canada necessary to make it work), and was hosted by Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley in the US, and Richard Dimbleby in the Britain.  A smorgasbord from North America was shown, including part of a baseball game (the Phillies vs the Cubs at Wrigley field), Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty, Cape Canaveral (with John Glenn explaining the future of the American space program), the Seattle World’s Fair and Space Needle, the Black Hills of South Dakota (Cowboys! Indians!  Mount Rushmore!), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the U.N., and a portion of President Kennedy’s scheduled news conference.  Canada showed off Montreal and the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival (clever shoutout to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck and his vow to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”).  The segment ends with Europe’s favorite American anthem, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

And we all cheered.

A few hours later, on the satellite’s next overhead pass, Europe returned the favor, with Richard Dimbleby intoning “Hello, North America” over a scene of Big Ben, and including scenes from the Vatican, the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, the Alps, and many more.

The miracle of mid-twentieth-century engineering that made it all possible was Telstar 1, the satellite which had been launched just two weeks prior to the event.  Its ascendancy was short-lived, as a few months later it succumbed to high radiation levels in the Van Allen Belt, and disappeared from service, reappearing for a week or two in January 1963 before going dark forever.

But, while it lasted, such a short time ago, it changed our view of the universe, making it both smaller and more immediately accessible, and larger and more complex, than ever we imagined possible.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my early memories of those days:

Today, July 10, 2021, is the fifty-ninth anniversary of the launching of Telstar 1, a 170lb communications satellite launched for the purpose of receiving ground signals and re-transmitting them back to earth.  According to britannica.com:

Following Telstar’s launch on July 10, 1962, a giant movable horn antenna near Andover, Maine, locked onto the satellite when its shifting orbit (apogee 5,600 km [3,500 miles]) reached an appropriate point. Minutes later the first television pictures were transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean and received, via relay stations in England and France, on European television screens. Telephone, telegraph, data, telephoto, and facsimile transmissions were also successfully made.

So much that we take for granted these days.  And yet, at the time, it was almost miraculous and portended a future of instantaneous communication, where no part of the world was disadvantaged by remoteness, and no person was out-of-touch.  (Here at the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century, it’s possible to look back from a “careful what you wish for” perspective, but at the time we had no such thoughts.  The world was our oyster, science was progress, and we believed.)

Still, and all, what I remember most about Telstar (I was almost eight years old when it was launched) isn’t the technology: It’s the music.

Telstar was a British instrumental recording written and produced by Joe Meek (a pioneer and genius of early ‘pop’ sound engineering and electronic composition/recording), and performed by the English band The Tornados.  It was released on August 17, 1962–a little over a month after the satellite was launched–and has the distinction of being the first recording by a British band to chart at #1 in the United States.

The weirdly electronic-sounding music (played on early electronic keyboard synthesizers) was not without controversy, as a French composer accused Meek of plagiarism, a case that wasn’t resolved (in Meek’s favor) until several weeks after his suicide in 1967.  By then, Meek, a deeply troubled man, had set up what he believed were communications with the dead, and had succumbed to long-term depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

But once again, we knew none of that at the time.

Here’s Telstar. One of the few contemporary (45rpm) pop records we owned, and the opening bars of which catapult me back to childhood–and a simpler world–every time I hear them:


2 thoughts on “Telstar: “The Electronic Bridge””

    1. Hi Gary! Thanks for stopping by. Should be up on Ricochet shortly. My neighbors brought over my hay for the winter and have been stacking it in the barn for me, so I have been–generally–getting in their way and providing cold drinks as needed. God Bless America!

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