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Telstar, Intelsat and the first global satellite broadcast

900 words

Published: 11 October 2018

Turn on the television and chances are you'll be able to take your pick from hundreds of channels, all of which will be broadcasting via communications satellites in orbit around the Earth.

But what is the technology that makes this possible, and when was the concept first thought of? What would it have been like to watch the very first global satellite broadcast?

Stranger than science fiction?

As early as 1945, the science fiction author and wartime radio operator Arthur C Clarke had predicted that three evenly-spaced satellite relay stations in orbit above the Earth would be enough to send and receive signals, including television pictures, anywhere in the world. 

Wireless World, Oct 1945, which featured Clarke's article on radio coverage by extra-terrestrial relay Wireless World, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0
Wireless World, Oct 1945, which featured Clarke's article on radio coverage by extra-terrestrial relay.

When had satellite broadcasting been tested?

In 1962 Telstar 1, the first in a series of satellites, had successfully relayed television signals across the Atlantic (and inspired a hit single by the Tornados).

Though Telstar 1 was a sphere less than a metre in diameter, sharp-eyed observers might track its progress across the night sky, winking back the rays of the sun like a super-fast planet.

Telstar

  • Series of experimental communications satellites, used to develop transatlantic broadcasting
  • Telstar 1 launched in 1962, follower by Telstar 2 in 1963
  • Multinational project by NASA and broadcasting companies in France, the UK and the USA
  • Telstar 1 weighed just 77kg and recharged via 3,600 solar panels
  • No longer functional, the satellites are still in orbit around Earth

How did other satellites improve on Telstar?

An international consortium including Britain, France, the US and other states launched Intelsat I, ATS-1 and several versions of Intelsat-II between 1965 and 1967, to further test the possibilities of communications satellites.

Unlike Telstar, these satellites sat in geostationary orbit, each above a fixed point on the Earth's surface. 

While the Telstar system was transatlantic, these satellites offered full global coverage, making global broadcasting possible for the first time.

 

Chart showing different types of satellite orbits around Earth By Cmglee, Geo Swan [CC BY-SA 3.0 ] By Cmglee, Geo Swan [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons Image source
Chart showing different types of satellite navigation orbits, including geostationary.

When was the first live global satellite TV broadcast?

On 25 June 1967, the BBC's Our World television programme used satellites to broadcast live images to millions of viewers around the globe.

All over the floor sat assorted representatives of the Flower Power generation, including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Eric Clapton, dressed in rainbow colours and holding placards proclaiming peace and love. Above the crowd at EMI's Abbey Road studios, seated on high stools, were the members of Britain's global pop sensation, the Beatles.

However, this was no sit-in to protest the Vietnam War, then at its height. The mop-tops from Liverpool were preparing to give the first public performance of 'All You Need is Love', subsequently a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The song had been commissioned by the BBC to represent Britain in the first ever simultaneous, worldwide live broadcast.

What were the challenges involved?

Our World would involve live feeds from 14 different countries (originally 19), received in 24 countries. Officially under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union, it was coordinated from the BBC's studios in London.

Aubrey Singer, Head of Science and Features at BBC Television, had immediately seen an opportunity to bring the world closer together through a unique global co-production. But despite the new technology, there were other obstacles to making the broadcast happen.

Annotated script for Our World live satellite broadcast Science Museum Group collection
Annotated script for the broadcast

In a gesture that was itself political, the international group of programme-makers decided that no politicians or heads of state would appear. Instead, all the broadcasting countries would contribute segments on science and culture, and reflect the activity of ordinary citizens. 

Unfortunately, politics intervened when the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries pulled out the week before transmission, in a protest over the Six Day War in the Middle East. It was a great disappointment to Singer and his colleagues, whose goal was to broadcast to the whole world.

How did people experience the broadcast?

Five chapters, under a unifying theme of world population, included 'The Hungry World', 'The Crowded World' and 'The Worlds Beyond', showing slices of life as they happened from around the globe.

Italy contributed footage of the film director Franco Zeffirelli shooting Romeo and Juliet; the US offered the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing in New York. The Greek opera singer Maria Callas and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso also made appearances, while Australia offered insights into space from its radio telescope near Canberra.

Aubrey Singer chose the Beatles for their global appeal, commissioning them to write a song with a simple, universally understood message—'All You Need Is Love'.

The broadcaster Cliff Michelmore's introduction, transmitted to UK audiences before the programme itself, included a sequence of satellite images of the Earth from space. 

For many viewers, this would have been their first opportunity to see photographs of 'our world' in its entirety. 

What is the legacy of Our World today?

Incredibly, the broadcast proved to be a success–a stupendous feat of organisation by the producers that involved coordinating live television feeds from all around the globe.

Our World paved the way for future broadcasts, and two years later, on 20 July 1969, the world gathered round its TV sets again to see an even more extraordinary technical achievement: live pictures of the first moon landing.

Today, there are hundreds of telecommunications satellites in orbit around the Earth in what is known as the Clarke belt, after Arthur C Clarke.

Broadcasting live from all around the world is no longer an exciting special occurrence, but part of everyday life.