Building the World

COMSAT: United States

Telstar Satellite. Image: wikimedia.

It was a Frenchman, Jules Verne, who in 1865 predicted a spaceship supported by an international league of nations. A British Royal Air Force electronics officer, and member of the British Interplanetary Society, wrote a novel describing television signals beamed around the world by orbiting satellites; RAF officer Arthur C. Clarke would go on to write Space Odyssey: 2001. But fiction turned fact when American John R. Pierce wrote a seminal article that may in part be responsible for the communications revolution.


John R. Pierce, from National Academy of Engineering, at

While Verne and Clarke had the ideas, their predictions would become reality in a country where a number of technologies were developing. It was in America where the telephone was invented beginning a tradition that evolved Bell Labs. Simultaneously, the space race, begun when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, evolved to the American lunar landing. Satellites, telephones, television – and the scientists and engineers who designed them – may have created in the United States the climate of a “perfect storm” for innovation. But perhaps part of the credit for the communications revolution is architectural. Bell Labs’ version of MIT’s Infinite Corridor may be a physical representation of the social network. Bell Labs, AT&T’s incubator for new ideas, had a hallway with many offices where ideas could stream among strollers who moved along the random connection hallway. This was the research base for John R. Pierce who, in 1955,  wrote a seminal article: “Orbital Radio Relays.” Pierce had become fascinated with the idea of David J. Whalen of NASA for a “communications mirror in space, a medium-orbit repeater and a 14-hour-orbit repeater.” The combination of Pierce and Whalen was critical to the birth of the satellite communications. Scholars at the Lemelson Center ( might agree.


NASA’s David J. Whalen’s “Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible” presents a selective chronology of the evolution of communications satellites:

1945            Arthur C. Clarke article: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays”

1955            John R. Pierce article: “Orbital Radio Relays”

1956            First Trans-Atlantic Telephone Cable: TAT-1

1957            Sputnik: Russia launches the first earth satellite

1960            First Successful DELTA Launch Vehicle

1960            AT&T applied to FCC for experimental satellite communications license

1961            Formal start of TELSTAR, RELAY, and SYNCOM Programs

1962            TELSTAR and RELAY launched

1962            Communications Satellite Act (U.S.)

1963            SYNCOM launched

1964            INTELSAT formed

1965            COMSAT’s EARLY BIRD: 1st commercial communications satellite

1969            INTELSAT-III series provided global coverage

1972            ANIK: 1st Domestic Communications Satellite (Canada)

1974            WESTAR: 2nd Domestic Communications Satellite (U.S.)

1975            INTELSAT-IVA: 1st use of dual-polarization

1975            RCA SATCOM: 1st operational body-stabilized communications satellite

1976            MARISAT: 1st mobile communications satellite

1976            PALAPA: 3rd Domestic Communications Satellite (Indonesia)

1979            INMARSAT formed

1988            TAT-8: 1st fiber-optic trans-Atlantic telephone cable

INTELSAT, formed two years’ after the American Communications Act, was born during the U.S./Russian space race. While the entity had 11 global partners, one leader in the industry was noticeably absent – Russia. The Soviet Union soon authorized INTERSPUTNIK whose members ranged from the USSR, to Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland and Romania. INTELSAT achieved global coverage on July 1, 1969.  The achievement was visible: 500 million people worldwide turned on their televisions just 19 days later to witness Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It was a dramatic opening of the global village.


In 2000, Lockheed Martin purchased COMSAT, absorbing it into its Global Telecommunications unit. When the United States Congress agreed to the purchase, it simultaneously rescinded COMSAT’s exclusive right to access the INTELSAT network and called for privatization of INTELSAT. In 2001, the same year now famous as the title of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s film, INTELSAT with a membership of 145 countries, was privatized.

Document of Authorization


To provide for the establishment, ownership, operation, and regulation of a commercial communications satellite system, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled.

Sec. 101. This Act may be cited as the “Communications Satellite Act of 1962.”

Sec. 102. (a) The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States to establish, in conjunction and in cooperation with other countries, as expeditiously as practicable a commercial communications satellite system, as part of an improved global communications network, which will be responsive to public needs and national objectives, which will serve the communication needs of the United States and other countries, and which will contribute to world peace and understanding.

Approved August 31, 1962, 9:51am

-From Public Law 87-624 (August 31, 1962)

– See Building the World, pp 630-639.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Skype Me: Friends in Bangkok chatting with buddies in Boston use various means of telecommunications. When Sputnik entered the sky, and soon after when COMSAT was founded, what new products and services were made possible? Are there more innovations to come?

Space Debris: Satellites are now becoming old and indeed crashing to earth. What was once a bold new frontier, empty as the ancient prairies before highways, space is now increasingly crowded with debris and junk. What should the world be doing about this problem? As space activities expand, how can law and practice safeguard this “final frontier?”

Budget Cuts Lead to Cooperation?: The United States Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed 22% cut on space programs. Perhaps austerity may lead to cooperation. The Air Force recently signed an agreement with five countries that together will pay for a ninth Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) and share services. Will the world’s economic stresses lead to peace in space or merely cause factions?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Allen, Thomas J. and Gunter Henn. The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann and Architectural Press, Elsevier, 2007.

Clarke, Arthur C. The Exploration of Space. New York: Harper, 1951.

Clarke, Arthur C. “Extra-Terrestrial Relays.” Wireless World. October 1946, pp. 305-8. Facsimile at

Garrels, Anne. Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as seen by NPR’s Correspondent. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2003. This book was written using a satellite phone in a suitcase. In order to ward off suspicious guards who might invade her room and find the phone, Garrels used the ploy of answering the door naked.

Lusk Brooke, Kathleen and George H. Litwin. “Organizing and Managing Satellite Solar Power.” Space Policy 16, (2000): 145-56.

Mueller, Milton. Universal Service: Competition, Interconnection, and Monopoly in the Making of the American Telephone System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Pierce, John Robinson. The Beginnings of Satellite Communications. History of Technology Monograph. Berkeley, CA: San Francisco Press, 1968.

Sellers, Wallace O. “Financing ‘Orbital Power & Light, Inc.’” In Solar Power Satellites: A Space Energy System for Earth, by Peter E. Glaser, Frank P. Davidson, and Katinka Csigi. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons/Praxis Publishing, 1998.

Shalal-Esa, Andrea. “US Eyes Global Cooperation on Satellites.”, June 6, 2012.

Verne, Jules. De la terra a la lune (From the Earth to the Moon). 1865. New York: Bantam Classic, 1993, Lowell Bair, translator. There are also other editions in many languages.

Whalen, David J. The Origins of Satellite Communication, 1945-1965. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2002.


For information on satellite, broadband, cable, broadcasting, and multimedia industries, see

For David J. Whalen’s “Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible,” which includes a selective satellite chronology from 1945-1988, see

For Bell Labs’ “Infinite Corridor” and the architecture of innovation: see

For information about the transatlantic cable and Morse Code, see

For a history of wireless, see

For the U.S. Supreme Court opinions regarding the Marconi-Tesla decision to resolve the proper patent holder for wireless transmission (radio), see

For global cooperation on satellites:

For more on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, visit

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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One Comment

  1. When did solar panels start to become popular? Like when did you start to see solar panels on houses and solar garden lights?

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