— With the launch of the first commercial geosynchronous satellite, live television broadcasts across the
became a reality and a multibillion dollar industry was born.
Built by Hughes Aircraft, the Early Bird, or 1, launched on a rocket
April 6, 1965
The early TV broadcasts, which began just a few months after launch, were low capacity – enough to handle only 240 phone circuits or one low-quality black- and-white television channel, Joseph Pelton, director of the space and advanced communications satellite organization at the George Washington University here, said in a March 24 phone interview. But when compared to the then-standard 36-phone circuit capacity provided by submarine cable, they were a real technological leap, he said.
Early Bird was the first in a series of Intelsat geosynchronous communications satellites designed to provide global coverage.
The idea began with science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, who in October 1945 published an article in the British journal Wireless World that explained how three satellites in geosynchronous orbit could provide worldwide communications coverage.
“He thought he would have to have a manned vehicle replacing the radio tubes,” so Clarke never patented the idea, Pelton said. But the invention of the smaller, longer-lasting transistor replaced the radio tube a few years later, enabling an unmanned satellite system.
In the early 1960s U.S. President John F. Kennedy proposed establishing a global communications satellite system, Pelton said.
Congress passed the Communications Satellite Act Aug. 31, 1962, which established the Communications Satellite Corp., or Comsat.
The act established Comsat as a largely commercial entity with some government appointees and government oversight of international agreements, which Comsat was approved to negotiate, Pelton said.
To develop a global communications system, the
sought the help of international partners.
urged the creation of an international organization to manage the satellite system, Pelton said.
Talks between the
from 1962 to 1964 led to the establishment of the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium, known as Intelsat,
Aug. 20, 1964
, Pelton said.
The initial plan was for a constellation of low Earth orbiting satellites to provide the worldwide communications coverage, he said. But
objected, noting the proposed distribution likely would cause service disruptions in their regions, Pelton said.
Meanwhile, NASA and Hughes Aircraft were testing Clarke’s notion by launching a series of experimental geosynchronous communications satellites, Pelton said. The first, Syncom 1, failed when communications were lost shortly after launch in February 1963. The second, launched in July of that year, successfully provided communications across the
. The effort was led by Hughes engineer Harold Rosen, who later led the design for the Early Bird, Pelton said.
Largely because of that experience, Intelsat awarded Hughes the Early Bird contract. In a March 25 e-mail, Pelton likened the development of the geosynchronous commercial satellite to that of the car, saying that while Clarke invented the wheel, Rosen made it viable just as Henry Ford had done.
With the deployment of the Intelsat 3 series in 1969, global coverage was achieved just in time for the Apollo 11 Moon landing, which was watched by an estimated billion people, Pelton said.
Capacity increased to about 1,200 telephone circuits or a few black-and-white television channels, which resulted in a dramatic decrease in the cost of broadcasting services at the time, Pelton said.
“It was a rather incredible period in terms of the total explosion of technology,” he said “Almost magically the demand materialized.”