Arthur C. Clarke predicted satellite TV and GPS in the 40s and 50s


Above, a letter written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1956 predicting, quite accurately, aspects of the future of communications.

Link [via Letters of Note via dvice]


    1. sounds more like satellite phones, as cell phones are terrestrial. also sounds a bit like Spot.

  1. Censorship-free global TV network!? The man is insane! But seriously, that’ll never happen.

  2. All he needed to do was mention “apps” and he just described iPhones and Droids. Pretty incredible. Makes me wonder if Cory’s future of Whuffie and Refresh isn’t so out there after all…

  3. Sheesh! I thought everyone already knew this. Guess I am just older than a lot of people.

    And note to Dave Bullock: when my brother calls me from Singapore, or my brother-in-law calls from England, their cell phones aren’t just using terrestrial relays.

  4. He’s talking about communications (TV and telephone) satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit – also known as a “Clarke Orbit”.

    I’m waiting for the space elevator…

  5. I’m still thinking about the social consequences of this!

    And I’d love to know what those thoughts might have been. For that matter, Clarke died recently enough to have seen those consequences.

  6. Such a shame this wasn’t located by the US Patent Office when they were doing their prior art diligence before they issued their multitude of patents on the subject. While the letter may not be fully “enabled” (that is, provide enough information for someone “skilled in the art” to replicate a working system), doesn’t it raise the question of “obviousness?” Check out some of the patents that have been issued using just Clarke’s keywords:
    Patents containing “world communication satellite relay frequency AND power”
    Seems this is a fundamental issue with patents.

  7. SPOT was a Microsoft technology that used terrestrial FM signals piggybacking on the local transmitters of an area; as such, I wouldn’t really classify it as falling under Mr. Clarke’s exposition on potential satellite technologies.

  8. His typewriter makes him type a bang ! by typing a dot . then backspacing and typing a tick ‘. Nostalgia!

  9. Meh, I predicted the DVR when I was a little kid in the 80’s, when I made the connection that a VHS tape was magnetic media just the same way that hard drives were magnetic media. I should have patented that.

  10. Everything I’ve learned about Mr. Clarke indicates that he was a very, very bright fellow.

  11. By the time Arthur C. Clarke was proven right about GPS, he had already invented the “I-told-you-so-erator”, which promptly backfired by flooding roughly 3/4 of technology reporting with his name. This was, naturally, mortifying, so he took it offline and didn’t speak a word of it afterward.

    1. Orion was only ever a paper study, no hardware (beyond a couple of TNT-powered proof-of-concept put-puts) was ever built.

      NERVA, on the other hand, actually built an engine that ran on the test stands for nearly a couple of hours, all told. Still, it was killed by the same test ban that killed Orion, even though it would have been far kinder to the environment than launching an Orion would have been.

  12. Everyone (well, all serious SF readers) knows that Clarke predicted the geosynch communications satellite.

    Almost nobody (except those who have actually read the story) remembers that he also accurately predicted one of the early markets: porn.

  13. I can’t locate the book where I read this, but I believe that in the story he wrote he thought that satellites would be manned, which seems obviously silly to someone who’s grown up underneath modern communications satellites.
    Also, what is up with those tab stops? 11 spaces? I wonder if he could have predicted that indenting text would become a dying art once the tab key was re-purposed to jump between fields o’ ‘net.

  14. In the 1940s he wrote an article for a British magazine in which he worked out the math for a geo-stationary satellite. If he’d taken out a patent one wouldn’t have been built until after the patent expired 17 years later.

  15. Yeah, there’s a reason that geosynch is also sometimes called Clarke orbit.

    Clarke wrote a short story on the subject, “I Remember Babylon”, which bears some thinking about from a modern perspective. In the story, eeeevil foreigners (Chinese, I think) launch a communications satellite in order to provide a worldwide, uncensored TV broadcast. They’ll provide a channel containing news, propaganda, and (worst of all) pornography. The characters predict that the availability of porn and uncensored news will cause the INEVITABLE MORAL DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA doom doom doom. (End of story.)

    So these days, basically that has come to pass, especially what with the Internet and all. Except the actors have all been rearranged. America is mostly in favor of it, and built large parts of it; and it’s other states— China, Iran, Australia— that are worried that the free flow of information (and porn) will destroy them. (Of course, America’s also sometimes pretty ambivalent about whether maybe censorship would be better. Weren’t there attempts to suppress Al-Jazeera?)

    On the other hand, given that Clarke’s short was originally published in Playboy, I do kind of wonder how many levels of facetiousness it contained.

    1. #25,

      “I Remember Babylon” was also an early example of Clarke outing himself. If anything I think the story was a commentary on the sensitivity of western countries to social and sexual deviancy at the time it was written. It was written in 1960 (hey, almost the same time as Stranger in a Strange land) so it is really a commentary on the 1950s.

  16. have read ‘fountains of paradise’ several times which outlines
    the space necklace


  17. I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke. It wasn’t until after I graduated as an Electrical Engineer and reread the stuff that I truly realized what a genius and humanitarian he was.

    Did he invent radar, no. But he was a part of it. Did he invent satellites. No. But he was a part of it,

    A visionary he was. There is no doubt.

  18. There was a very logical reason for proposing that the communication satellites would be manned – back then computing devices were thermionic valve or at best individual transistor based. Very unreliable, frequently needing replacement and so you would need a repair crew on the spot.

    Besides, the main point of having space rockets is to have people going into space. Launching satellites etc is incidental; all that matters is getting humans into space in as large numbers as possible as self-sustainingly as possible. Without that we’re dead. Gone. Forgotten.

  19. My favourite story by Arthur C Clarke was also one of his first “Travel by wire”. He recasts the development of television as a project to develop a matter transmitter. Hilarious.

    From memory:

    “And then there was the issue of interference on the line. Some of our customers came out the other end looking like nothing on Earth and very little on Venus or Mars.”

    Read this story if you can get a copy.

  20. Great post, and I loved reading Arthur’s 1945 article.

    But something makes me suspicious about the 1956 letter. The syntax feels wrong for the era, and I think I detected an emoticon. Would he have used the word “billion” when there is a discrepancy between the long and the short scales?

    Please prove me wrong, as it is a great letter.
    It’s just that there is no clear providence that I can see.

    1. Well, I just read The Billion Dollar Moon again last week, in my copy of the Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. So unless someone went back to the 50’s to publish a fake story claimed to be by him in order to make this fake letter more convincing, he did indeed use the word ‘billion.’

      1. Thanks dculberson,
        I need to read the story, and I likely stand corrected. I was just being sceptical.
        I’m now on a hunt to find that book :)

        A Rendezvous With a Library ?

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