Today we take instant communication for granted but back in 1962 international on- demand telephone calls were unheard of.

To make a long distance call you had to book it through the operator who would call you back. We did have American TV programs (the “Lone Ranger” was a favourite of mine) but none of them were live. In fact because of the difference in TV standards (for example the UK system used 405 lines per inch and the American 525) they only way they could be broadcast was for them to be played back on a US TV receiver which had a British TV camera focussed on it doing the actual broadcast!

So when Telstar started broadcasting it was the start of a new era. For the first time live TV pictures could be sent across the Atlantic – albeit for limited time. A medium-altitude satellite, Telstar was placed in an elliptical orbit (completed once every 2 hours and 37 minutes), revolving at a 45-degree angle above the equator. Because of this, its availability for transatlantic signals was 20 minutes in each orbit. However it was the start of a new era but I wonder how many of the scientists who worked on it would have dreamt of the day when mobile phones can send video images around the world in seconds.

Telstar was built by AT&T and was developed by a partnership between AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British Post Office (the then provider of telephone survives) and the French telecommunications agency.

Unlike most of today’s communications satellites, Telstar was on an elliptical orbit, which meant the ground antenna had to track the satellite as it came around approximately every 2.5 hours. Because the transmitting and receiving radio systems on board the satellite were not as powerful or capable as ones on today’s satellites, the ground antenna had to be huge.  In fact the aperture of the antenna was 3600 square feet. The antenna was 177 feet long and weighed 380 tons. The antenna was housed in a radome the size of a 14-story office building.

The North American earth station was located at Andover, Maine, but the main earth station was Goonhilly Downs in the southwest of England. This was operated by the BBC who were international coordinators and also linked the US station to and from Continental Europe. It was here that BBC engineers developed 525/405 conversion equipment which eventually was housed at the BBC Television Centre in London – in a very large room. (Nowadays the same job can be done with a piece of equipment about quarter the size of a matchbox).

Such was the interest in Telstar that everyone was talking about it and pop group “the Tornados” became the first British band to reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. This instrumental record featured a clavoline, a keyboard instrument with a distinctive electronic sound. Click here to listen to a clip.

A popular story at the time of the record’s release was that the weird distortions and background noise came from sending the signal up to the Telstar satellite and re-recording it back on Earth. However, is more likely that the effects were created in Meek’s recording studio, which was a small flat above a shop in London. It has been claimed that the sounds intended to symbolize radio signals were produced by Meek running a pen around the rim of an ashtray, and that the “rocket blastoff” at the start of the record was actually a flushing toilet, with the recordings made to sound exotic by playing the tape in reverse at various speeds.

Telstar had been launched by NASA aboard a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, and was the first privately sponsored space launch.

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