Felker Talking Telstar

Email a Friend
The Telstar Communications Sattelite 1962

 "Our engineers have had to create a lot of new techniques that are on a heroic scale," computer and communications satellite pioneer Jean H. Felker reveals in this 1962 talk. A quiet, unassuming speaker, Felker seems to embody the can-do spirit of American technology in the latter half of the 20th century. Speaking before a gathering of scientists and communications executives, he refers to a model of the Telstar satellite "out in the hall." This satellite, forerunner of the our modern, global communications system, had not yet been launched. Felker refers to it as "the closest thing to a living animal that…engineers have ever made." Its 1,000 transistors will measure radiation, the impact of cosmic dust, and other forces in the hostile atmosphere of space.

DEC 7 1961; Jean H.. Felker Holds Scale Model Of Telstar; He calls satellite 'a sort of onion in the sky.'; (Photo By Cloyd Teter/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

NASA will launch the satellite (AT&T and Bell Labs footing the bill) with the eventual aim of transmitting both telephone calls and live TV between America and Europe. Because the satellite must be light and run on very little power (supplied by solar cells) much of the technology has shifted to ground stations. Felker shows a picture of an enormous station in Maine, calling it "one of the most impressive things I've ever seen." Over 300 tons, yet precision crafted, much of it is a balloon made of 20 tons of rubberized canvas. A 40 ton gear could not be shipped but had to be assembled on-site inside the balloon! This satellite is just a test. What AT&T eventually envisions, and what indeed came to pass, was a system of satellites covering the entire planet so global communications could be continuous.

There follows a question period in which Felker explains the eventual fate of Telstar—it will burn up. He predicts the picture quality will be as clear as regular TV, and guesses that the rates, though quite literally astronomical at first, will with increased use prove cheaper than those of the current submarine lines. When someone asks about potential collisions, he points out "space is an awfully lonely place." As an engineer he'd rather launch a satellite than try to hit one. Finally, he rejects the idea of "jamming" by foreign powers, saying when it comes to international communications "people generally behave."

This is a fascinating glimpse of space and communication science in its initial "golden" period, when every problem seemed solvable by engineering and the future one of boundless progress.

Jean H. Felker (1919-1994) received a degree in electrical engineering but seems to have combined his technical expertise with an almost visionary approach to the possibilities of technology. His early recognition of the importance of the transistor led to significant work on the first generation of computers. The website of the Computer History Museum tells how:

Jean H. Felker led a Bell Labs team including engineer James R. Harris that designed and built a fully transistorized computer dubbed TRADIC (TRAnsistor DIgital Computer) for the U. S. Air Force in 1954. Involving about 700 point-contact transistors and over 10,000 diodes, the prototype operated at 1 MHz while requiring less than 100 watts of power. A lighter airborne version (Flyable TRADIC) using junction transistors replaced an analog computer for navigation and bombing control in a C-131 aircraft.

Felker then moved on to communications. It is hard to overestimate both the practical importance of the revolution ushered in by Telstar and the way in which it embodied the cultural Zeitgeist. The NASA website relates how: 

Although operational for only a few months and relaying television signals of a brief duration, Telstar immediately captured the imagination of the world. The first images, those of President John F. Kennedy and of singer Yves Montand from France, along with clips of sporting events, images of the American flag waving in the breeze and a still image of Mount Rushmore, were precursors of the global communications that today are mostly taken for granted.

What becomes apparent in this talk, which is neither too technical nor at all condescending, is the earnest good will and pride with which Felker touts his team's achievements. There is a real sense that any problem can be overcome by a combination of original thought and sound application of scientific principles, a far cry from today's anti-intellectual suspicion of anything "scientific" and that profession's own unwillingness or inability to make its findings and suggestions relevant and convincing to large sections of the public.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150276
Municipal archives id: LT9551