Did McLuhan Have Telstar in Mind When He Conceived of the Global Village?
The Telstar I satellite launched on July 10, 1962, was the first active communications satellite to orbit Earth. (Alcatel Lucent/Associated Press)
Fifty years ago, you could have watched the first live TV programs transmitted by satellite. That satellite was Telstar. You could have listened to the first single by a British band to reach No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. That song was Telstar, performed by The Tornados. And you could have shopped at a newly opened pharmacy in Calgary. That store’s name was Telstar Drugs.
The year 1962 was the year of Telstar. The satellite was deployed on July 10, an event that had been anticipated for months. In March, the Toronto Telegram said Telstar would “propel man into the age of satellite communications.” On launch day, the New York Times called it “the forerunner of a revolutionary global communications system” and CBC News said it was “the first step in worldwide television.”
The Toronto Star later described Telstar as “one of the most significant advances in communications since the telephone was invented.”
NASA sends Telstar into orbit
On July 10, 1962, at 4:30 a.m. ET, a three-stage Thor Delta rocket took off from NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida with the 77-kilogram Telstar satellite on board. It’s a fraction of the size of today’s communications satellites. For example, Echostar XVII, which went into space July 5, 2012, weighed 6,100 kilograms. In Canada, Xplornet Communications will use the Echostar satellite to provide high-speed broadband to rural Canada.
Telstar was “tremendously important,” says Vincent Mosco, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Before Telstar, “people hadn’t seen what satellites could do for them in their everyday lives.” Mosco says Telstar provided the first demonstration of what was now possible, “bringing the world to your living room.”
Telstar’s many historic firsts
The first images were transmitted moments later at 7:31 p.m. ET by the Andover Earth Station, which showed its U.S. flag fluttering in the breeze. The flag video was seen in France. Next up was the first fax via satellite, in which a photo of Telstar was transmitted. The media were onlookers but none of that was for public consumption.
The first video from Europe transmitted to the U.S. was from France, featuring Yves Montand singing La Chansonette. Then the British followed with what AT&T later called “dry understatements” from engineers.
The British were reported to be furious with the French for “a clear breach of faith” for broadcasting entertainment.
First TV program via satellite
Yves Montand sings La Chansonette in the first video transmission by satellite from Europe to North America, in July 1962.
There was a plan for a special broadcast from both Europe and North America and the British thought their neighbours had jumped the gun.
That broadcast took place on July 23. Legendary BBC anchor Richard Dimbleby hosted from Europe and Walter Cronkite of CBS and Chet Huntley of NBC co-hosted from the U.S.
Dimbleby began the broadcast around 3 p.m. ET with: “Hello, Walter Cronkite. Hello, United States. On my television screen here in Brussels, they are both together as clear, so go America, go. Go America, go.”
“Good evening, Europe,” Cronkite responded.
The 18-minute North American program was a joint production of the three American networks and the CBC. It began with a baseball game then underway at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
TV broadcast from Canada
From Canada, there were shots of Niagara Falls, Quebec City and a scene from Macbeth on stage at the Stratford Festival, featuring Christopher Plummer and Kate Reid.
The best remembered part of the American content was a live news conference in which President John F. Kennedy talked about gold prices. Perhaps according to plan, the price of the U.S. dollar immediately strengthened.
The length of the broadcast was dictated by the time the satellite was in position to communicate with both Europe and North America, about 25 minutes.
During Telstar’s next orbit, the European program was broadcast to North America. It featured a London bobby talking to American tourists, with Big Ben in the background, an outdoor opera in Rome, the Louvre in Paris, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and a scene from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
France issued a postage stamp in 1962 to commemorate Telstar. (Courtesy National Postal Museum)
Reception was described as excellent, the broadcast a technical success. A new era in television broadcasting had begun. Star TV critic Jeremy Brown said the program gave him “a sense of elation at this latest electronic marvel.”
Cronkite later described it as “that rarest of all television moments, the kind that compels viewers to lean forward and stare in a primal wonder and amazement at their screens.”
A big step had been taken toward Marshall McLuhan’s global village, which he first wrote about in The Gutenberg Galaxy, published the same year.
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The Ariane V rocket lifts off at the Kourou space base, French Guiana, on July 5, 2012. with a payload that includes Echostar XVII, a satellite that will help provide high speed internet access to rural Canada. (J. M. Guillon/ESA/Associated Press)
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