It’s hard today to imagine what the world was like in 1917. There were few telephones; radio was mainly a curiosity; what we think of today as minor infections were often fatal; an airplane was a wonder that could bring an entire town outdoors; a child born in 1917 could expect to live about 50 years. On 16 December 1917, Arthur Charles Clarke was born in Minehead, Somerset, a small town on the water, closer to Cardiff than to London. By the time he died, just past midnight on March 19, 2008 in his adopted home of Columbo, Sri Lanka, Clarke had seen humans walking on the moon, using television transmitted via the communications satellites he was instrumental in creating, hovering 22,300 miles above the center of the Earth in the orbit that was given his name.
Clarke received the equivalent of a high school education, but was fascinated by science and by science fiction, which he read in the pulps of the day. During World War II, he became an electronics officer in the Royal Air Force thanks to his mathematical aptitude; this led to his becoming involved with radar (described in his novel %%AMAZON=0743475313 Glide Path%%). He was able to get the college education he had been unable to afford before the war, and graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College, London. Somehow, in his spare time, he wrote science fiction, with his first story sale, “Rescue Party” coming to John W Campbell’s Astounding in 1946.
Clarke was popular from the first, and became known as one of the giants of science fiction along with Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. What wasn’t appreciated at the time, however, was that he was also contributing to changes their world would see twenty years later. In 1945, while the explosions of V-2 rockets still echoed in London, Clarke privately circulated a paper to the British Interplanetary Society, which was followed by “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?”. In this simple paper, Clarke described, for the first time, the idea that communications relays could be put into high orbits, allowing radio and television (itself still just a curiosity then) braodcasts to cover the entire earth without relays and without the constraints of the shrt-wave radio of the time. Clarke was a young man, only 27, but already in his lifetime radio had gone from a curiosity to mass media; aircraft were flying around the world; the revolution of antibiotics was just beginning; self-contained underwater breathing sets had just been perfected by Gagnan and Cousteu; and his small, almost unnoticed paper was setting the foundation for what would eventually be the communications revolution.
Clarke continued writing, both science fiction and popular science, becoming a full-time professional writer in 1951. He moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1956, and made his home there, with some interruptions, until his death. In Sri Lanka, Clarke became an enthusiastic SCUBA diver as well as a writer; his fiction began to include seagoing themes, including novels like %%AMAZON=0451096215 The Deep Range%% and %%AMAZON=0441152201 Dolphin Island.%% Still, he was considered, basically “just a science fiction writer” until his astonishing 1966-68 collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based loosely on his short story “The Sentinel”, 2001 was not an immediate commercial success, but established Clarke to many as the pre-eminent science fiction writer of his time; he was brought in by Walter Cronkite as a commentator on the Apollo moon landings. It was 1969; Clarke was 51, already past his life expectancy at birth, watching as televised moon landings were broadcast throughout the world on the communications satellites he had, arguably, invented.
Even after his success with 2001, he remained a gentle, gracious, and kind man. In 1972, he visited Colorado Springs, Colorado and the Air Force Academy. One attendee, now Professor Anil Rao of Metropolitan State College in Denver, remembered it this way:
“Four years later I and a friend had the chance to meet A.C. Clarke. He was giving at talk at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Afterward he was kind enough to chat with us back stage for about 10 minutes. There weren’t too many people around; the cadets had other things to do I guess. He signed books (I still have them ), we talked about India (I’m originally from there and Clarke lives in Sri Lanka) and was invited to come out to Sri Lanka. Being a student in high school did not afford me much opportunity to engage in such a trip, but it was nice of him to offer. I asked him what his next book was going to be, Clarke replied ‘Rendezvous With Rama.’ and asked me ‘Do you know what “Rama” means?’ so talked about Hinduism, space travel and such. After ‘Childhood’s End’, ‘Rama’ is my favorite Clarke novel. A nice memory of a very gracious man.”
The friend was me, and this was the first time I met an author, any author.
Clarke continued to be active, vital, and interested until just a few weeks before his death, although post-polio syndrome had increasingly limited his activity and travel. In later years, he was able to remain in close contact with friends and admirers the world over.
He was particularly interested, in later years, in new approaches to generating energy, including some that were considered “fringe science” at best. But then, that was one of his greatest strengths: the ability both to be a hard-headed skeptic and at the same time preserve an open mind, exploring things that were still considered unconventional, including helping sponsor research in Russia into alternative energy. One partner in this, Robert Bishop, remembers him this way:
Arthur C. Clarke was more than a writer, inventor and philosopher, he was a maker of very special maps, capable of guiding anyone with a willing imagination into a most incredible, hopeful future. Arthur may be gone, but his books will continue to guide dreamers and visionaries for the foreseeable future and beyond.
He was able to provide a televised greeting on his 90th birthday. By his 90th birthday, Clarke had seen the world go from aircraft of cloth and wood to robotic starships, made of metal and silicon, sending back reports from the deep cold dark between the stars. In poor health, he ended his greeting to his fans and admirers world wide by saying “good bye”, but I don’t think any of us believed he would die.
As word was passed throughout the world over the communications network he had helped create, a friend reminded me of a single line from the book version of 2001. As the great Monolith opens to carry him to transfiguration and rebirth, David Bowman sees through it, and cries out “Oh my God! It’s full of stars!”
Charlie Martin is a Colorado computer scientist and nearly-successful screenwriter who contributes to the Flares Into Darkness political blog as “Seneca the Younger,” and blogs under his own name at the aggressively non-political Explorations blog.