The Telstar Story

Joe Meek – born Robert George Meek in Newent in 1929 - was the first truly independent record producer and the first to use excitingly different recording techniques. Many of his early skills with electrical gadgets were developed while working with the Gloucester branch of the Midlands Electricity Board. He cut his first record in 1954 and was to build his own studio at 304 Holloway Road, London. Among his catalogue of 1960s chart toppers were "Johnny Remember Me" ( for John Leyton, also a star of such films as "The Great Escape" and "Every Day’s A Holiday" ), "Have I the right to hold you?" ( for The Honeycombs - a band unusual in having a girl drummer ) and "Just like Eddie" ( for Heinz Burt ). Probably his best known production however was "Telstar" for The Tornados - the first British instrumental record to hit number one in both Britain and the USA. By way of paying tribute to Joe Meek, this article tells the real Telstar story.Joe Meek – born Robert George Meek in Newent in 1929 – was the first truly independent record producer and the first to use excitingly different recording techniques. Many of his early skills with electrical gadgets were developed while working with the Gloucester branch of the Midlands Electricity Board. He cut his first record in 1954 and was to build his own studio at 304 Holloway Road, London.  Among his catalogue of 1960s chart toppers were “Johnny Remember Me” ( for John Leyton, also a star of such films as “The Great Escape”, “Von Ryan’s Express” and “Every Day’s A Holiday”), “Have I the right to hold you?” ( for The Honeycombs – a band unusual in having a girl drummer ) and “Just like Eddie” ( for Heinz Burt ). Probably his best known production however was “Telstar” for The Tornados – the first British instrumental record to hit number one in both Britain and the USA.  By way of paying tribute to Joe Meek, this article tells the real Telstar story.

Joe Meek was definitely one of a kind, especially in his approach to recording electronic music – hence the affinity he felt with the Telstar communications satellite which inspired him. Even today “Telstar” remains a happy, feelgood tune and – like the similar contemporary electric sound of The Shadows – captures the mood of the era when people thought that the World was just getting better all the time with the march of technological progress.

After the rationing and deprivation of the War years too, the 1950s and 60s represented an explosion of new possibilities, colour and music. Teenagers, for example, were no longer little copies of their parents but had their own world of formica-tabled coffee bars with jukeboxes playing rock ‘n’ roll. And although the USA and USSR seemed ever more ready to unleash nuclear war on each other, Britain celebrated the Coronation of a new Queen, independent television and the conquest of both the summit of Mount Everest and the sub four minute mile.

A Wireless World?

Back in 1945, the only vehicles that were going in to space – for a few minutes at least – were Nazi V2 rockets – but in 1957 the USSR shocked the World by orbiting the first artificial satellite – Sputnik 1 – and by 1961 men such as Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd were going into orbit and coming down safely again.

In 1945, too, Arthur C. Clarke – born in Bishops Lydeard, Somerset – wrote an article for Wireless World magazine entitled "Extra – Terrestrial Relays". This envisioned a network of three space stations that could pick up, boost and re-transmit radio signals all around the World.In 1945, too, Arthur C. Clarke – born in Bishops Lydeard, Somerset – wrote an article for Wireless World magazine entitled “Extra – Terrestrial Relays”. This envisioned a network of three space stations that could pick up, boost and re-transmit radio signals all around the World.

Radio signals travel in straight lines and cannot follow the curvature of the Earth.  Beyond a  frequency of 30 Megahertz they go straight up into space but below  3 Mhz they tend to be reflected by the ionosphere.  This is one of the highest layers of the atmosphere, starting at around 37 miles (60 Km) above the Earth – which also refracts signals between 3 Mhz and 30 Mhz.  This reflective property of the ionosphere was exploited by early radio pioneers to send low frequency radio signals around the World.

Meanwhile, following the success of Her Majesty’s Submersibles Dreadnought and Valiant, construction of four Polaris armed Resolution class nuclear submarines began at Barrow in 1964 with the Ships Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) patrolling the seas from 1968 to 1996. Having taken over Britain’s nuclear deterrent from the Royal Air Force, the baton was then passed on to the current fleet of Trident submarines.To a limited degree, low-frequency radio signals are also bent by gravity, so the combination of gravity and ionospheric reflection is why “longwave” signals, such as those used by BBC Radio 4 can be heard hundreds of miles beyond the horizon.  For this reason, Britain’s nuclear submariners listen to Radio 4 to ascertain that Britain still exists and the United States and France use unjammable very low frequency radio to broadcast to their submerged nuclear submarine fleets from specialised aircraft.

Although Arthur C. Clarke foresaw his extra terrestrial relay stations being manned, his idea of placing the stations in geosynchronous orbit (around 22 000 miles up where the artificial moons would make one orbit every 24 hours – in effect standing still over one spot on the Earth) was the foundation of modern communication satellite practice. In fact if you are reading this on the Internet outside Britain you may well have a communication satellite to thank!

Furthermore, in a 1958 essay, Arthur C. Clarke envisioned ” a personal transceiver so small and compact that that every man carries one…The time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth merely by dialling a number.  Such a device, Clarke thought, would also include a global positioning device so that “no one need ever again be lost”.  Or as we say in the 21st Century – a mobile phone!

Obviously turning ideas into practice is not always easy – especially as no rocket of the time could place a satellite in geosynchronous orbit – but the low-noise, high-bandwidth high-gain “travelling wave tube” amplifier that Arthur C. Clarke envisaged for electronically boosting microwave signals in his extra-terrestrial relays had already been invented during the Second World War by Austrian emigre Rudolf Kompfner, working for the Admiralty at Birmingham University.  In 1951, Kompfner was recruited to the Communication Division of Bell Laboratories – the research arm of America’s telephone monopoly AT&T – by its head John R. Pierce, also a science fiction writer.

In fact 28 January 1960 saw the US Navy’s Moon Relay system send a picture of the USS Hancock by radio from Hawaii via the Moon to Washington DC. Taken from the air, it showed the Hancock’s crew on the forward flight deck spelling out the words “Moon Relay”.Later in the 1950s, alternatives to Clarke’s extra-terrestrial relays included research into bouncing radio signals off the Moon ( a technique still used by radio hams ) and placing millions of copper needles into medium Earth orbit – realised by the US Air Force’s Project West Ford in May 1963.  In fact 28 January 1960 saw the US Navy’s Moon Relay system send a picture of the USS Hancock by radio from Hawaii via the Moon to Washington DC.  Taken from the air, it showed the Hancock’s crew on the forward flight deck spelling out the words “Moon Relay”.  However, unlike using a geostationary satellite, the US Navy’s Moon Relay could operate only when the Moon was above the horizon for both transmitting and receiving stations.  The very first communications satellite – as a battery operated transmitter rather than a relay for ground based signals – was the US Army’s Project SCORE (Signal Communications Orbit Relay Experiment) launched from Cape Canaveral on 18 December 1958. Rather than just a relatively small instrument package  placed into orbit by a rocket booster, Project Score involved the orbiting of an entire WS-107A-1 Atlas 10B Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.  85′ long and 10′ in diameter – almost the size of two British railway carriages.    Weighing almost eight tons and with 150 lb of equipment, the SCORE Atlas was placed into an orbit 32 degrees from the Equator with an apogee of 928 miles and a perigee of 115 miles.  Messages were transmitted to the satellite, where they were recorded on tape for later transmission when commanded to do so by ground signals.  Some success was achieved, including the receiving and transmission of a special Christmas message by US President Eisenhower.  This was the first a human voice had been beamed from space.  After 12 days of work, the SCORE Atlas burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere on 21 January 1959.

The technology of using microwaves to carry telephone calls was also used to link terrestrial towers – such as London’s Post Office (now BT) Tower – with similar structures in a line of sight.  However, Telstar paved the way with a little help from an earlier satellite named Echo.

Reflected Glory

Echo 1 – also the work of Pierce and Kompfner – was the first American experimental passive communications satellite. After launch from Cape Canaveral on 12 August 1960 it was inflated in orbit to form a 100’ diameter balloon. The plastic surface was metal covered so as to reflect radio waves from ground based transmitters to a receiving Earth station thousands of miles away.Echo 1 – also the work of Pierce and Kompfner – was the first American experimental passive communications satellite. After launch from Cape Canaveral on 12 August 1960 aboard a Thor Delta rocket it was inflated in an orbit inclined at 47 degrees to the Equator by 30 lb of sublimating powder that expanded into gas when exposed to the rays of the Sun to form a 100’ diameter 132lb balloon. The 0.0196 inch thick transparent plastic surface was covered in a film of aluminium 0.0005 inches thick so as to reflect radio waves from ground based transmitters to a receiving Earth station thousands of miles away.  The first message relayed by Echo 1 was “This is President Eisenhower speaking” which was transmitted from Goldstone, California, to Holmdel, New Jersey: a distance of 2 500 miles.  Later transmissions included the transmission of teletype signals, facsimilie photographs, two way telephone conversations using commercial equipment, transcontinental and transatlantic signal relays and experiments to determine the effects of the ionosphere on radio signals.

Over eight months, many successful link ups were made across the World before leakage of gas caused it to deform and lose its reflecting power. Echo was also a highly visible object in the night sky before it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 24 May 1968.

A second aluminiumised Mylar balloon – Echo 2 – was launched on 25 January 1964. This was 134’ across, made of thicker material, and permitted the first collaborative communication satellite programme between Britain and the USSR when signals were bounced from Jodrell Bank – founded by Gloucestershire man Sir Bernard Lovell – to Russia. Previously the Cheshire based radio telescope had received signals from Holmdel, New Jersey courtesy of Echo 1, despite its low orbital height of between 945 and 1 049 miles.

However, it was then calculated that a similar balloon to passively relay television signals would need to be an unfeasible 300 metres in diameter.

The Invisible Focus

Telstar, though, was the true ancestor of modern communication satellites and was also the first space vehicle to be owned by a company rather than a government - in this case AT &T of America - although it was operated by a consortium including the British General Post Office and NASA, who charged $ 6 000 000 for launch services and claimed patent rights on mission discoveries.Telstar, though, was the true ancestor of modern communication satellites and was also the first space vehicle to be owned by a company rather than a government – in this case AT &T of America – although it was operated by a consortium including the British General Post Office and NASA, who charged $ 6 000 000 for launch services and claimed patent rights on mission discoveries.

Weighing 170 lb, the 34.5″ (880 mm) diameter vehicle was launched from Cape Canaveral on 10 July 1962 after a two week delay caused by a loose wire. On 11 July 1962 Alastair Cooke made the first sound transmission over the new link from New York and 12 days later for the first direct television exchange was made between Europe and America.

Starting with an image of the Stars and Stripes flying at the American earth station at Andover, Maine, and followed by the sight of the Union Flag flying over Goonhilly Downs, this only lasted 20 minutes – but a second link-up involved 50 cameras in 9 European countries transmitting to North America. In her Christmas message of 1962, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II referred to Telstar as “the invisible focus of a million eyes”.

After a busy life at an orbit of between 593 to 3 503 miles, Telstar became unserviceable during February 1963, partly as the result of radiation generated by the detonation of Starfish Prime an American 1.4 megaton nuclear device 280 miles above the Pacific the day before its launch. A more reliable Telstar 2 was launched on 7 May 1963 to a higher orbit of 604 to 6 713 miles and continued working until May 1965.

Telstar 1 was studded with 3 600 solar cells, coated with radiation resistant sapphires, producing just 14 watts of electricity and allowing the satellite to transmit just 2 watts of electromagnetic signal, of which a millionth of a millionth of a watt reached Earth.

The internal electronics – including the travelling wave tube – were sealed within a canister suspended inside its shell by nylon ropes.  The vehicle was spin stabilised, rotating at 200 rpm rather than the 45 rpm of Joe Meek’s vinyl single.

 The Dish in the Stone

One of the advantages of relaying radio and TV signals by satellite was that high frequency signals could be used. These signals – in the 5 MHz band previously used for radar - were less prone to fading and interference than medium wave transmissions.One of the advantages of relaying radio and TV signals by satellite was that high frequency signals could be used. These signals – in the 5 MHz band previously used for radar – were less prone to fading and interference than medium wave transmissions.

However, because the Delta rockets used to launch Telstars 1 and 2 were not powerful enough to put their payloads into geosynchronous orbits, the satellites rose and set like the Moon. Telstar would be visible from Britain for 40 minutes and then invisible again for the next two and a half hours – an awkward phenomenon if a televised sporting event went into extra time.

Similarly, the ground receiver would have to track a beach ball sized object travelling at 14 000 mph 2 000 miles away to pick up the relatively weak satellite signal. As a result, just before Telstar was launched, the General Post Office ( as it then was ) opened a new ground station at Goonhilly on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. Not only was this the southernmost point in Great Britain – maximising the visibility of Telstar – but the granite bedrock made a super stable base for the first open satellite dish in the World.

Also essential for the reception of such weak signals was the World’s most sensitive maser amplifier. Located in a cabin just behind – and moving with – the dish, the amplifier – built at Mullard Research Laboratories in Redhill, Surrey – worked in a high magnetic field and had to be kept at 2 degrees above absolute zero. To cool the amplifier, liquid helium arrived from the British Oxygen Company via British Rail and Post Office vans.

Unlike smaller dishes – such as the Distant Early Warning examples at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire and the French earth station at Pleumeur-Bodou – a replica of the horn shaped antenna at Andover, Maine – which sheltered under plastic domes – Goonhilly’s dish was 26 metres across, weighed 870 tonnes but could turn a complete circle on railway tracks in three minutes while also moving from horizontal to vertical, even in the face of strong winds blowing off the Atlantic. 

It was in fact a scaled down version of Jodrell Bank – designed by the same architect – and the Post Office could boast that every component was British, although an American built klystron valve was added for later experiments with NASA’s Relay satellite. Now known as Arthur and a Grade 2 listed building, the big white Cornish structure was designed  to carry one TV signal or 600 phone calls. But not both at the same time!

In contrast, TAT-1, the first purpose-designed trans-Atlantic telephone cable which had been laid down on the sea bed by AT&T and the GPO in 1956, could only offer 36 telephone channels – hence the interest of Bell Laboratories in finding a better alternative. 

Later “firsts” for Telstar included two way telephony, fax transmissions, synchronising clocks at the US Naval Observatory and the UK National Physical Laboratory to within one microsecond of each other and the first audio-converted exchange of data between IBM computers in Endicott, New York and La Gaude, France.

Bell Laboratories, which had also pioneered the transistor and the photovoltaic solar cell, had originally envisaged between 50 and 120 Telstars in a 7 000 mile high orbital belt above the Earth.  As it was, Bell Laboratories built six Telstars but only two flew in space – for both political as well as technical reasons.

In the spring of 1962 the incoming Kennedy administration had decided to limit AT&T’s existing monopoly of American telecommunications by passing The Communication Satellites Act, which from August that year established a new Communication Satellites Corporation (Comsat) which would commercialise future US communication satellites.

AT&T was finally fragmented by anti-trust legislation in the 1980s, by which time the idea of a low Earth orbit Telstar Belt had been abandoned, only for the concept to be revived in the 1990s by the 66 satellite Iridium network for mobile telephones.

By the 1990s too, Goonhilly Downs had acquired more than 60 separate parabolic dishes and become the largest satellite earth station in the World, although by then most telephone traffic had switched to broadband fibre optic submarine cable.  The station was thus closed by British Telecomm in 2006 although plans are now under way to re-open the site as a science centre.

Privyeti Molniya

By the 1970s the Soviet Union had followed the success of Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin with a system of satellite communication which combined the simplicity of Telstar with much of the coverage of a true geosynchronous network. Molniya relayed television, telegraph, weather charts, newspaper facsimilies and multi channel radio services across the many time zones of the then USSR. Its orbit was highly elliptical, extending to nearly 25 000 miles in the northern hemisphere and dipping below 310 miles in the southern hemisphere. A network of "Orbita" ground stations allowed people in Siberia, the Far East and Far North to watch Moscow TV and experiments were also carried out with Paris-Moscow link ups.By the 1970s the Soviet Union had followed the success of Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin with a system of satellite communication which combined the simplicity of Telstar with much of the coverage of a true geosynchronous network. Molniya relayed television, telegraph, weather charts, newspaper facsimilies and multi channel radio services across the many time zones of the then USSR. Its orbit was highly elliptical, extending to nearly 25 000 miles in the northern hemisphere and dipping below 310 miles in the southern hemisphere. A network of “Orbita” ground stations allowed people in Siberia, the Far East and Far North to watch Moscow TV and experiments were also carried out with Paris-Moscow link ups.

This diagram shows three Intelsats ( International Television Satellites ) in equatorial geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans while the Soviet Molniya 1A satellite travels at 65 degrees to the equator in an elliptical orbit which maximises its visibility to ground stations in the former Communist bloc.This diagram shows three Intelsats (International Television Satellites) in equatorial geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans while the Soviet Molniya 1A satellite travels at 65 degrees to the equator in an elliptical orbit which maximises its visibility to ground stations in the former Communist bloc.

While the aim of the Molniya program may have been to spread enlightenment however, the return to earth of the rocket that had launched Molniya 2B may have been the cause of the Berwyn Mountains UFO incident of 23 January 1974.  Witnesses in north Wales heard a loud crashing noise and rushed out of their houses to see bright lights in the sky.  However, a search of the mountainside by police and RAF personnel the next day revealed no crashed aircraft debris and the incident was attributed at the time to a small earthquake coinciding with a meteor shower.  However, some witnesses claimed that the lights in the sky were too bright and lasted to long for them to be space rocks burning up.

On Thursday 5 August 2010 however the release of Ministry of Defence file DEFE 34/2045 by the National Archives revealed that the Meterological Office had at the time received intelligence from the SS Tokyo Bay, a container ship travelling off the west coast of Africa regarding ” five bodies, spectacularly incandescent”, traversing the sky for about 40 seconds. The Met Office further recorded that “The sighting was probably the decay of the Soviet communications relay satellite Molniya 2B’s rocket body which decayed at about this time.”

However, some witnesses who claim to have seen a rugby ball shaped object hovering over the Berwyn Mountains are still sceptical to this day.

Higher and Faster

From geosynchronous orbit the whole disc of the Earth is visible as opposed to just the curvature experienced by earlier Echo and Telstar satellites. In 1963 NASA launched a Hughes-built satellite - even lighter than Telstar - called Syncom-2 which achieved a drifting geosynchronous orbit at 36 000 km above the Earth. The next Syncom achieved a true geosynchronous position and was followed by the first truly geosynchronous communications satellite - Early Bird.From geosynchronous orbit the whole disc of the Earth is visible as opposed to just the curvature experienced by earlier Echo and Telstar satellites.  In 1963 NASA launched a Hughes-built satellite – even lighter than Telstar – called Syncom-2 which achieved a drifting geosynchronous orbit at 36 000 km above the Earth.  The next Syncom achieved a true geosynchronous position and was followed by the first truly geosynchronous communications satellite – Early Bird.

This was drum shaped rather than an angular globe like Telstar and was launched from Cape Canaveral on 6 April 1965. On 28 June 1965, from its position 22 300 miles over the Atlantic it began relaying telephone calls, stock exchange prices and live TV pictures ( including the launches and recoveries of 2-man NASA Gemini space missions ) between the New World and the Old. Most notably, before being switched off in 1969, it helped arrest a Canadian criminal – just like the electric telegraph caught murderer John Tawell in the 1830s and wireless telegraphy apprehended Dr Crippen six decades before.

By then though, Intelsat 2 and 3 were in orbit, the latter having been launched from Cape Canaveral on 19 December 1968 and starting work on 24 December with a TV broadcast by Pope Paul. Weighing 322lb, Intelsat 3 was one of eight vehicles built by for the 70 nation International Communication Satellite Consortium and reached geosynchronous orbit at 22 300 miles - almost a tenth of the distance from the Earth to the Moon - above the Equator just off the coast of Brazil. It could handle 1200 telephone conversations or 4 TV channels.By then though, Intelsat 2 and 3 were in orbit, the latter having been launched from Cape Canaveral on 19 December 1968 and starting work on 24 December with a TV broadcast by Pope Paul. Weighing 322lb, Intelsat 3 was one of eight vehicles built by for the 70 nation International Communication Satellite Consortium and reached geosynchronous orbit at 22 300 miles – almost a tenth of the distance from the Earth to the Moon – above the Equator just off the coast of Brazil. It could handle 1200 telephone conversations or 4 TV channels.

In 2012, satellites in geosynchronous orbit allow road vehicles, aircraft and shipping to position themselves to within a few metres of their required locations, news reports and sporting events to be beamed all around the planet, and international mobile telephone calls.

On the downside however, placing 9 000 satellites of all kinds around the Earth has generated over 100 000 pieces of space debris. This includes the junk that wrecked the French satellite Cerise and the fleck of paint travelling at 17 500 mph which nearly punched a hole through a Space Shuttle windscreen. Several thousand kilograms of space junk also falls on land each year.

A Record Scratched

Although satellites have just kept on getting better ever since the days of Telstar, the mid to late 1960s were not such a good time for Joe Meek. Amid a deepening personal crisis fuelled by drugs and cash problems Joe killed his landlady Violet Shenton with a shotgun he later turned on himself in 1967. He was just 37 years old.

For many years one of the few Gloucestershire connections remaining with Meek’s sometimes erratic genius was in the name of Telstar Cruisers Ltd, hirers of self drive power boats, based at Riverside Walk, Back of Avon in Tewkesbury.

Back in the Groove

In 1992 however, plaques were put up at 1 Market Square, Newent, where Joe Meek was born, and 304 Holloway Road, London, where he also stayed and recorded. The Joe Meek Appreciation Society had further reason to celebrate in 2005 when Nick Moran’s play “Telstar” was staged at the New Ambassador’s Theatre in West Street, London. Starring Con O’Neill as Joe Meek and Linda Robson ( from BBC TV’s “Birds of a Feather”) as Violet Shenton, the production even featured on the cover of the Society of London Theatre’s official fortnightly guide.  In 2009 the play “Telstar” further developed as a feature film and released in cinemas and as a DVD.  Once again Con O’Neill played Joe Meek with Pam Ferris as Violet Shenton

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