Milestones of Innovation 9: Early Bird On Station


Fifty years ago, on June 28, 1965, an exotic device named Early Bird made it possible to transmit an uninterrupted live television show across the Atlantic from Europe to America or vice versa. This event, a landmark on the way to today’s interconnected world, happened less than 40 years after the first radio-telephone conversations between New York and London, less than 10 years after the first sub-ocean telephone cable went into service, and less than eight years after the Russians put up the first orbiting satellite.

Early Bird was a microwave relay station, not on a nearby hillside but instead orbiting 22,300 miles above the Equator. It belonged to a global communications satellite network called Intelsat. The first of Intelsat’s vast network of operational microwave relay stations, it was shaped like a hatbox, weighed 36 pounds, and was covered with power-generating solar cells. Spinning at about 60 revolutions a minute, Early Bird was keeping its antennas pointed stably at antennas below.

Designed by Hughes Aircraft in California, Early Bird had gone up April 6, 1965, on a multi-stage rocket toward its assigned position, about 28 degrees longitude west of Greenwich, between Brazil and Africa. Early Bird appeared to hover there, because, at that altitude, it was orbiting the earth at 1,000 miles an hour—just the speed at which Planet Earth turns eastward on its axis. Early Bird was thus in “geosynchronous” orbit.

Today, dozens of far-bigger, higher-volume geostationary comsats are doing similar duty above the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. For Intelsat and a host of other national and international owners, the craft are relaying fat streams of data to and from numerous big antennas on the ground. They also are sending high-frequency signals directly down to small dishes on millions of homes. Together with a web of optical fiber cables stretched across the oceans’ floors, the satellites assure an incredibly wide river of communications across our planet. New generations of both cables and satellites are put in place frequently, to replace obsolete equipment or boost capacity and reliability.

Like so many marvels of an age of innovation, the descendants of Early Bird exist because somebody once concluded that they were unlikely to be practical. Given human nature, that prediction in the late 1950s promptly drew the combative response: “Sez who?”

Two very creative spirits at Bell Telephone Laboratories, John R. Pierce (who coined the word, “transistor”) and Rudolf Kompfner (a later winner of the U.S. National Medal of Science), invented a device called the traveling wave tube for boosting microwave signals. For a prestigious electronics journal, Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers (March 1959), Pierce speculated about the optimal design for communications relays in space. He knew that one place to put such relays was in geosynchronous orbit. Indeed, back in 1945, in a magazine called Wireless World, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had imagined a geosynchronous weather station manned by humans.

But Pierce not only was concerned that the traveling wave tube would burn out fairly quickly but also doubted that you could stabilize the craft. Repair missions out to 22,300 miles above the equator could get very expensive. So Pierce suggested instead a swarm of more easily replaced satellites in low Earth orbits. Bell Labs was convinced enough by this reasoning that it developed and built the Telstar comsat that was put into orbit on July 10, 1962. Orbiting the earth approximately every two and a half hours, Telstar could relay about 30 minutes of television between big dish antennas in Brittany and Maine. So images of John Kennedy and a singing Yves Montand could leap the Atlantic.

None of this went down well at Hughes Aircraft. This leading innovator in electronics, aviation, and space was losing some lucrative defense contacts, including one for the F-108 interceptor. According to Hughes engineer Harold Rosen (born in 1926), the company needed a significant new product. In a 1973 interview in The New York Times, Rosen recalled, “We were just generally looking for any other way to apply our technology. Among other things, we specialized in lightweight transmitters and relays and antennas.” He read the Pierce article as the shock of Sputnik reshaped American technical thinking, and began talking to others at Hughes. One of them, John Mendel, had worked on heavy versions of the traveling wave tube at Bell Labs. Now, Mendel had an idea for making it so much lighter that it could fit into the 50-pound limit on a payload a rocket could carry out to 22,300 miles.

There was a second weight-related problem. The required small payload couldn’t just let its antennas put out signals in all directions. It had to be pointed precisely down to ground stations. How to do this? Maybe the craft could be kept from wobbling and tumbling by spinning it steadily, with its spin-axis perpendicular to its orbital path. Rosen’s genius associate Don Williams “elegantly” worked out all the orbital mechanics.

The company put up an initial $300,000 in seed money and spent a lot more trying to sell the concept to major agencies in Washington. The Defense Department, with its own synchronous orbit comsat project called Advent, said no at first. But Advent flopped, and so NASA stepped in and hired Hughes to develop a substitute.

Rosen and his colleagues pushed ahead to an experimental model called Syncom in 1963. Syncom 1 blew up as it sped out into space, but, a few months later, Syncom 2 took up a station over the Atlantic and President Kennedy could use it to converse with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister of recently independent Nigeria.

Deeply respected, imaginative experts at Bell Labs, perhaps the most fruitful industrial laboratory that ever existed, had said it couldn’t be done. But it could.

[Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 electricity blackout across the Northeast.]

Further Reading:

Victor K. McElheny, New York Times, Aug. 27, 1973

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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