Nokia Bell Labs: The First Active Orbiting Communications Satellite

On July 10, 1962, AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories (now Nokia Bell Labs) and NASA launched Telstar 1, the first communications satellite from Cape Canaveral. Global communications changed forever.

Then, for the first time, live television transmissions and phone signals could be relayed between the US and Europe by means of this simple looking, spherical black and white satellite. Its iconic exterior held within it 170 pounds of some of the most complex electronics known to humankind. It featured 3,600 solar cells for power and a traveling-wave tube for amplifying the radio signals. Back in 1962, the key task of the Telstar 1 was to receive signals beamed from the USA, amplify them 10 billion times and rebroadcast them to live audiences in Europe, and vice versa. TV and telephone communication signals were relayed and boosted to get back down to Earth. The Telstar 1 circled the planet every two and half hours. It was only in the right position to beam transmissions between the USA and Europe for 20 minutes in each orbit before dropping out of contact. Future satellites were designed to work in tandem with each other, seamlessly passing the broadcast to keep transmission live at all times. At launch, the Telstar 1 facilitated over 400 telephone, facsimile and television transmissions.

Mounting Telstar Satellite to the Thor-Delta rocket 1962 (Source: Nokia Bell Labs and AT&T Archives)

The Telstar 1 satellite was made possible by a whole series of inventions devised by the team at Bell Labs, including the recently invented transistor. Their lead researcher was engineer John Pierce, a big science-fiction fan who was greatly inspired by the ideas he came across in science fiction books. He coined the term transistor and designed the technology into the Telstar 1. In fact, Pierce also wrote science fiction himself under the pseudonym J.J. Coupling: a nice in-joke for his Bell Labs colleagues, as j-j coupling is a complex hyper-physics concept involving the interaction between light atoms.

As well as the first transistor, the Bell Labs team also developed the world’s very first solar cell which enabled vital sun-powered energy. They invented the horn antenna receiver and a unique amplifier for microwave communications systems called a Travelling Wave Tube amplifier: all truly vital to the success of Telstar 1.