Fifty years ago today, the first transatlantic television broadcast was beamed to Europe via the newly launched Telstar 1 satellite.
I remember sitting in my basement watching the Cubs game as WGN flashed the news across the bottom of the screen that parts of the contest were being transmitted to Europe. It seemed remarkable to me at the time that pictures and sound could be beamed almost instantaneously thousands of miles away.
Prior to Telstar, footage of news events overseas were shot using a film camera, flown back to the states, and processed for broadcast on the nightly news. If news broke after noon eastern time, networks were out of luck. Transatlantic flights at that time took 8 hours. Some of the planes had film processing and cutting equipment so that the film would be ready to air the minute the plane touched down.
Telstar initiated a revolution in many fields.
The Telstar 1 satellite, which became the world’s first active communications satellite, launched on July 10, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Two days later it made history by transmitting the first global television signal from the Andover Earth Station in Maine to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center in Brittany, France.
The first images beamed to Earth in that broadcast included the views of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, remarks from President John F. Kennedy, clips from a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, shots of the American flag waving in the breeze, and images of French singer Yves Montand.
“Live broadcast of events happening throughout the world are taken for granted today, but 50 years ago transmissions enabled by Telstar captured the attention and imaginations of people everywhere,” Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement. “The 50th anniversary reminds us how far we have come, and how much potential there is [in] the new era of digital communications.”
While the Telstar 1 satellite was only operational for a few months, it successfully transmitted a variety of signals from orbit, including television, fax, telephone, data and still pictures from several locations across the United States and Europe, Smithsonian officials said.
Two weeks after it launched, the Telstar 1 satellite facilitated a multinational broadcast on July 23, which was carried by the American networks CBS, NBC and ABC, as well as CBC in Canada and Eurovision in Europe, Smithsonian officials said.
Telstar 1 was only operational until November of that year, but its legacy is still being felt today. Communications satellites are a huge business and make possible much of the modern world we now take for granted.
It’s good to remember that humble beginnings that all of our wondrous technology sprung from.