According to blog posting by Bell Labs archivist, Ed Eckert, "Fifty years ago Bell Labs worked with the US government to solve one of the most perplexing broadband challenges of the time – how to send televisions signals across the ocean. Transatlantic communications existed in the form of undersea cables but this could not support the broadband video technology of the day – black and white television signals.
Telstar was a sphere just under a metre in diameter covered by 3,600 solar cells (invented by Bell Labs in 1954). It could carry 600 voice calls and one black-and-white TV channel. It was launched on top of a NASA Thor-Delta rocket and was placed in an elliptical orbit some 48,000kms above the equator.
Because it was not in a geostationary orbit it could provide only about 20 minutes of transmission time between Europe and the United States during each orbit.
The first attempt to launch a geostationary satellite - Syncom 1 - that would provide continuous communications was made by NASA in 1963, but it failed. The era of modern satellite communications really started in 1965 with the launch, by Intelsat of Early Bird 1. It carried commercial trans-Atlantic TV services for the next four years
Intelsat had been formed a couple of years earlier as a multinational organisation with its shareholding distributed among major telecommunications carriers. Bell Labs and its then parent, AT&T had by then been pushed out of the picture.
According to a recent history of Bell Labs - The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner - shortly after the launch of Telstar "[The US] Congress and the [president John F] Kennedy administration, concerned about ceding control of space communications entirely to the private sector and worried, too, about AT&T's immense size and aggressiveness, had already pushed all private companies out of the international satellite business."
Meanwhile Telstar had been immortalised in popular music, by the Tornadoes, whose record "Telstar" became a hit in both the UK and the USA
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