Monday, 24 February 2014

The Beatles: Space Pioneers

This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first visit to North America and their historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, events that changed popular music and our wider society.

As a fully paid up member of the Baby Boom generation, I remember that television appearance, but I also recall another television event featuring The Beatles that marked the maturation of a space age technology that also changed our lives and our world. This same technology also revolutionized the Olympics, making today's wall-to-wall coverage possible, regardless of where the games are staged.

When the Fab Four first appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964, the television signals were beamed from New York across the United States and Canada by microwave relays. The Beatles' many television appearances in the United Kingdom before that time could not be shown live in North America because the means didn't exist to move the signals across the Atlantic Ocean. Various ideas had been tried or were being tried to beam signals across oceans by bouncing the signals off of satellites. Giant balloons called Echo were put into orbit for this purpose, and one infamous U.S. Air Force experiment saw millions of needles put into orbit to see if signals would bounce off of them.

Bouncing signals from satellites and needles didn't work very well, and so engineers and scientists decided to try satellites that amplified signals before beaming them to distant receiving stations on Earth. Telstar, immortalized in a 1962 instrumental hit by the Tornadoes, was an early trial of this technology. But Telstar flew in a low orbit that allowed only brief periods of signal transmission.

Arthur C. Clarke, who later became famous as a science fiction author, had suggested putting satellites into geostationary orbit to facilitate communications. Such an orbit lies directly over the equator at an altitude of about 35,000 kilometres above the Earth. A satellite in such an orbit takes exactly one Earth day to circle the Earth, and hence the satellite appears to be stationary to an earthbound observer. 

This is a huge distance, however, and only the creation of the traveling wave tube and other advances made these satellites technically feasible. The first geostationary communications satellite, Syncom 3, was launched in August 1964, six months after The Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan, and it was used to transmit live television of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics from Japan to North America.

The first geostationary communications satellite over the Atlantic Ocean, Intelsat I or Early Bird, was put into orbit in 1965. More of these geostationary satellites were launched over the next two years, and even the Soviet Union began to launch communications satellites, albeit into different types of orbits.

In 1966, broadcasters from around the world, including Canada, the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, agreed to broadcast the first worldwide television show using the then brand new geostationary communications satellite links, and months of planning and preparation began, involving thousands of people.

Before the two-and-a-half hour show, called Our World, could be broadcast on Sunday, June 25, 1967,  Soviet Bloc nations had pulled out of the broadcast as part of the political posturing following the Six-Day War in the Middle East earlier that month. 

In spite of this problem, the show went on the air, featuring live segments from around the world. Canada's contribution included a conversation between the CBC's Stanley Burke, the Peter Mansbridge of his day, and famed philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. Another segment from the United States showed preparations for the first launch of the Saturn V rocket that would later propel Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

But one segment from London, England, became the most memorable part of the show, which was watched by 150 million people in 26 countries. The Beatles performed a song specially composed for the show by John Lennon, "All You Need is Love." Joining the Beatles inside the studio was a full symphony orchestra and many friends of The Beatles, including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Marianne Faithfull, and Graham Nash, who joined in the chorus of the song, which soon became a successful single release.

The entire show was broadcast in black and white, but the Beatles segment was later colourized when it was shown years later on The Beatles Anthology. The segment is also memorable because of the psychedelic attire worn by The Beatles and their friends for this event, which took place early in 1967's "Summer of Love."

Although appearances by The Beatles on live television were very rare by then, satellite television broadcasts from every corner of the Earth soon became commonplace, and thanks in part to Canadian advances in communications satellites, direct-to-home satellite services became part of everyday life in the late 1980s. Those satellite dishes are pointed at geostationary communications satellites.

The Olympics grew exponentially because of satellite broadcasting. After the initial broadcasts from Tokyo in 1964, Olympic Games starting in 1968 were broadcast around the world as a matter of routine.

Even though the Sochi Winter Olympics this month took place on the other side of the Earth, the broadcasts had the same quality and immediacy as the 2010 Winter Olympics that took place in our back yard in Vancouver, thanks in a large degree to satellite technology.

The availability of satellite broadcast technology has changed our lives, and The Beatles and the Olympics all featured in the early history of this advance. Whenever I hear that great Beatles anthem, "All You Need is Love," I think of the satellite technology that spawned it.

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