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Jul 10 2018

Real-time kicks: from the football pitch to the Moon

This summer, thousands of live satellite links have enabled millions of soccer/football fans around the globe to virtually be there in Russia for the sport’s largest event. Many of us have lived every kick, dive, goal and red card in the moment, taking part in what is arguably the biggest real-time communications event on earth.

Today, we take this kind of live global broadcast for granted. But with Nokia Bell Labs set to play a key role in rolling out the first-ever lunar 4G network with Vodafone via a pioneering privately-funded Mission to the Moon, my mind has turned to the long and exciting history that Nokia has in the iconic arenas of football and space communications.

My role as lead archivist for Nokia Bell Labs means I have privileged access to all sort of incredible files which reveal that things, of course, used to be very different. Fifty years ago, you could watch TV live at a distance using microwave towers and coaxial cables but you couldn’t transmit across the ocean. Recorded film rolls would have to be physically shipped or flown to their overseas destination, arriving days after the actual event. The idea of watching a global sporting event like this in real-time was a pipe dream. And it was a dream that Nokia Bell Labs was determined to realize.

Most of us won’t remember that red-letter day on July 10, 1962 — exactly 56 years ago to the day. It was the day that Nokia Bell Labs (formerly AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories) and NASA launched the first communications satellite from Cape Canaveral.

As Telstar 1 blasted into orbit, modern communication as we know it was born

Now, 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.

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

We were all so busy focusing on the players and points this summer that we hardly gave a second thought to the iconic black and white football used in every World Cup game. But it’s memorable design is named after Telstar 1. First kicked into play in 1968 and then used in the 1970 event, the ball’s eye-catching black and white design was chosen to help it stand out on the predominantly black and white TV screens of the time. The Telstar football has since become the global standard for soccer balls; incredibly fitting when you consider how live broadcasting has changed the game, forever.

Giant bicycle kicks in space

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. That required a sort of electronic bicycle kick, if you will; the overhead backwards kick that is one of Association Football’s most cheered moves, often used to strike at the opponent’s goal and score.

The amplified relaying of power that the scissor kick delivers is echoed in the how the Telstar 1 satellite was designed to work. TV and telephone communication signals were relayed, kicked and boosted like passing a soccer ball to get back down to their ultimate goal: 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 ball to keep transmission live at all times. 

Telstar relaying signal, 1962
Telstar relaying signal, 1962 (Source: Nokia Bell Labs and AT&T Archives)

Truth is stranger than fiction

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

Still in orbit

Although Telstar 1 has long since stopped being in service, it is still in orbit well over half a century later. Committed space enthusiasts can even track it online. If you want to take a closer look, you can also see back up replica models that faithfully mirror the original satellite at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and right here at the Nokia Bell Labs offices at Murray Hill, New Jersey.

There are other incredible space anecdotes from the Nokia Bell Labs archives; for example, the same horn antenna receiver used by Telstar 1 helped two of our radio astronomers to win a Nobel prize. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were using the powerful antenna to measure radiation in space when they inadvertently detected a low, mysterious noise persisting in background of their receiver. What they had stumbled across was cosmic microwave background radiation. They posited their findings as evidence for the Big Bang Theory. A few years later Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for the work they had carried out at Bell Labs and the Big Bang Theory graduated to the realms of accepted science fact.

Radiation test device
Left: Mounting solar cell to experimental model, Right: Radiation test device 1961 (Source: Nokia Bell Labs and AT&T Archives)

So, after all this archive mining, what’s my conclusion?

I guess it’s that since the very genesis of live streaming, Nokia Bells Labs has been shaping what’s possible for communications in our world, and beyond. For more than 90 years, our experts have been anticipating and solving the most complex ICT challenges confronting humankind. Our goal is the same today as it’s always been: to transform how we all communicate — and we’ve been pursuing that challenge in space for well over half a century. With the Mission to the Moon coming up soon, Nokia Bell Labs will continue to do what it has always done: developing disruptive research to drive, inspire and define what’s next.

Riveting global events today, beamed around the world from the stars. Tomorrow, 4G on the moon. Who knows what’s next? My guess is that the pioneers at Nokia Bell Labs probably do.

Learn more about how Nokia Bell Labs is developing disruptive research for the next phase of human existence.

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokia @BellLabs and @vodafonegroup using #missiontothemoon #4G #LTE #Telstarring #FifaWorldCup #Telstar18

About Ed Eckert

Ed Eckert is the Nokia Bell Labs Archivist and Senior Manager of IIS Intellectual Property Services. Ed has 30 years’ experience working in corporate archives, where he is charged with documenting Bell Labs’ R&D activities both past and present and conducting historical research. Ed also manages and curates the Bell Labs Technology Showcase exhibit at the Nokia Bell Labs headquarters in Murray Hill, NJ.

Tweet us at @nokianetworks

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