Telstar ready to go
By Ed Eckert, Bell Labs archivist
Fifty years ago Bell Labs worked with the U.S. government to solve one of the most perplexing broadband challenges of the time – how to send televisions signals across the ocean. Transatlantic communications existed in the form of undersea cables but this could not support the broadband video technology of the day – black and white television signals.
Television was transmitted at the time by microwave towers – beaming the signals from point to point – on land they worked great (and some are still in use today); however, they needed to have a clear line-of-site to transmit. This was incredibly problematic when trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean – some 3,500 miles. Just to give you an idea of the challenges in beaming a trans-Atlantic microwave signal you would have had to build a 475-mile-tall tower in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As difficult then as it would be today.
A Bell Labs scientist named John Pierce who was engaged in research around microwave technology became interested in making a microwave signal bounce. In 1960 he tested this theory by using a mylar weather balloon into orbit and bouncing a signal off of it – it was a weak signal, but it worked and became the unpinning of what would become Telstar was set into motion. In two years this went from a theory to a working satellite.
Of course many other emerging technologies were critical in making Telstar a success was well – the transistor (invented by Bell Labs in 1947) – Telstar needed 1,000 to work properly — and Solar Cells (invented by Bell Labs in 1954) were critical to power the satellite as well as inventions such as rocket guidance systems and microwave amplifiers
Part of my job is as the archivist of Alcatel-Lucent, and another part of my job is giving tours to customers. These may seem like very different jobs, but they fit very nicely together – the history of a company is really like a resume of a person. It helps customers judge what you can do for them – by understanding what you have done in the past. How a technology company rises to meet a challenge in the past, to me, is an indication of how it will do in the future.
Telstar is an example of everything coming together at the right time to create new solution to meet a communications challenge. This natural serendipity is still typical of the way Bell Labs works today. It is not uncommon for researchers from a number of disciplines to work together to apply techniques that have worked in one area of technology to another to create a breakthrough.
So while we all want to think the challenges of our own time are unique – when you put them through the filter of history – they are not. We are still struggling with broadband delivery – today it is High Definition and on a mobile device. Today’s solutions aren’t satellite but they are things like lightRadio™ and coherent optical technology. They are shattering the laws of physics and may be the superstars in 50 years.
One other lesson of the past holds true for me as well. The way to solve technical challenges comes down to groups of smart people working together and applying all the technology of the time. I can’t wait to see what the next 50 years brings and I am glad to be a part of company that has delivered in the past and will help to usher in the Telstar of the future.