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The death of Arthur C Clarke

Updated Wednesday, 19th March 2008

Reflections on the death of Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer who predicted the development of satellite communications technology.

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Arthur C Clarke rehearses for a 1953 BBC Television programme
Arthur C Clarke rehearses for a 1953 BBC Television programme.

He was a constant presence as I was growing up, and now I hear that he has died. The man who wrote my favourite science fiction stories, but also a science fact book Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age that my parents gave me for Christmas in 1971. I have it in front of me now, a slim Mayflower paperback. I have forgotten most of what's in it, but it made a big impression on me as a schoolboy interested in science, and now I will read it again.

The items within it that I do remember clearly are Arthur's accounts of his 'invention' of the geostationary communications satellite, and most notably a reprint of his amazing paper 'Extraterrestrial relays' that was initially published in Wireless World in 1945. Here he described how a 'space station' in a orbit with a 42,000 km radius must take exactly 24 hours to go round the Earth. If placed in such a orbit over the equator, to an observer on the rotating globe the 'space station' would appear to remain fixed in the sky, and would be ideally situated to relay messages to virtually  the whole hemisphere below. Moreover a set of three such stations, spaced at 120 degree intervals, would constitute a relay girdle capable of maintaining permanent global communications.

This was visionary stuff, because of course it is the principle upon which networks of communications satellites operate. Clarke did not get it quite right - he predicted large stations inhabited by teams of technicians (needed to replace burned out valves) rather than the small electronic satellites based on transistor technology. Even so, the basic idea was sound, and elsewhere in the book Clarke wonders whether he missed a trick (and an immense fortune) in not patenting the concept.

Clarke's proposal for satellites: From Wireless World Volume LI Number 10, October 1945
Clarke's proposal for satellites: From Wireless World Volume LI Number 10, October 1945 [Image: Public domain]

I never had the pleasure of meeting Clarke in the flesh, but we spoke once, several years ago. He was in his home in Sri Lanka, but through the wonders of geostationary communciations satellites he appeared on screen as the guest of honour at a meeting organised in London by the British Interplanetary Society. I (a member of the audience) had the good fortune to ask him a question and recieve a reply that was both thoughtful and diplomatic. To have talked with the great man who invented the very means we used to communicate is a memory that will never fade.


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