The First Electronic Church of America
Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke was born December 16, 1917 in Minehead, Somersetshire, England, the son of a farmer who began his career as a bureaucrat (in the British Civil Service) and a radar instructor in the Royal Air Force, and ended up as a celebrated author and television presence. He was a commentator, with Walter Cronkite, on the U.S. Apollo space missions that put the first men on the moon in the years 1968 to 1970, and he hosted two major series that still play on international television. He has won honorary degrees from universities all over the world, he has won Emmies, he has won all the major science fiction writing awards.
In the popular mind, he is most noted for his screenplay, "2001, A Space Odyssey," released in 1968 by MGM and directed by Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the most celebrated science fiction movie of all time. Clarke has a gigantic list of other works. Many of them are science fiction of a high order. Childhood's End is a science fiction classic about a race of space aliens who come to guide Earth to peace and prosperity by eliminating all individual governments (and, therefore, war) and solving the problems of poverty, hunger and oppression. It is often placed alongside Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G.Wells' The Time Machine. Rendezvous with Rama is an expression of wonder in the presence of Mystery. This novel was written in 1973, and it is the only work to win all four major awards in its genre. "Story telling of the highest order," said a review in The New York Times. "Perpetual surprise, the most breathless suspense."
Clarke's versatility and scholarship are also manifest in his first rate scientific and technical writing, which he has done in English, not academese, thus opening up new frontiers to young minds and to the public-at-large. But there's no seeming limit to Clarke's curiosity. His explorations have taken him up and out (into space) and also down and under (the seas and oceans). Since 1954, he has pursued a career as an undersea explorer and photographer off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and off the coast of Sri Lanka, where he now resides, still scuba-diving, observing the equatorial skies with a 14-inch telescope, and "playing with his Rhodesian Ridgeback and his six computers."
We put him in our pantheon of saints because it was he who got the ball rolling on instantaneous worldwide communications, a wondrous technology whose cultural and political ramifications are still being played out even as we read this note on the Internet. In a short letter published in 1945 by the British magazine Wireless World called "V2 for Ionospheric Research," Clarke proposed the notion of geosynchronous communication satellites. He wrote, "An 'artificial satellite' at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours, i.e., it would remain stationery above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth's surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet."
A few months later (it was actually one week after the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima), Clarke expanded on this idea -- describing a network of orbiting satellites 22,000 miles above the Equator, fixed at the same spot over the earth. His piece ran in the October issue of Wireless World under the heading "Extra-Terrestrial Relays." The paper was brief -- four pages, four diagrams and seven footnotes, including a reference to Herman Nordung, the pseudonym of an obscure Austrian military officer named H. Potocnik, who had written, way back in 1928, about a manned space station placed in the stationery orbit.
At that moment -- the year was 1945 -- Clarke admitted that his idea was "a half century ahead" of its time. In fact, the first geosynchronous satellite -- Syncom -- was launched less than 20 years later, on February 14, 1963, by three young engineers working for Howard Hughes. And that was the beginning of a new consciousness for humankind. Clarke's early suggestions in Wireless World, led to worldwide television (indeed, to all worldwide communication, including today's Internet). This has given Clarke a celebrity he hadn't sought and does not seek. Some have called him "the father of comsats." In modesty and truth, Clarke has refused that honor. At a special convocation at the Hague in The Netherlands in 1982, when Clarke was awarded the eighth Marconi International Fellowship for, among other things, "specifying in detail the potentialities and technical requirements for the use of geostationery satellites for global communications," he said, "I am not the father of comsats -- merely the godfather."
In fact, he said, Dr. John Pierce of the Bell Laboratories was the first engineer-scientist to publish a detailed technical analysis of communication satellites. "Even more important, he was the driving force behind the pioneering practical demonstrations with Echo and Telstar. He and Dr. Harold Rosen [of the Hughes Corporation] -- who played a similar role with the first geostationery comsats -- are the fathers of satellite communications."