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Arthur C. Clarke
Fall is upon us. The forest seems to be waiting for winter as the sun continues its swing to the south, casting long shadows from the barren aspens on frosty morning ground.
As we prepare for the rigors of winter, we begin to think about our connections to the outside world and how secure they are. We are closer to the outside world than ever before, with our telephone lines buried and our dependable cars and trucks which require less and less maintenance. Our electricity is more dependable, too, thanks to the work done this summer by Estes Park to eliminate the annoying “blinking” which has plagued our valley for more than three decades. They never did find the exact trouble, but they trimmed trees, replaced transformers and traced outages all summer long. It’s now been more than two months since we experienced even a momentary power outage.
We sometimes forget how most of this transformation came about. Fifty years ago last month Arthur C. Clarke proposed an idea, laughed at when he came up with it, that changed all our lives. Clarke is a mathematician and science-fiction writer who thought it possible to position satellites in stationary orbits above the planet to provide communication linkages to the entire world. He calculated that such satellites would have to be exactly 22,300 miles above the earth.
Today, of course, we don’t think much about those satellites. At the moment there are dozens of them, spaced just a few degrees apart, at that exact distance, in a line across the sky now called the Clarke Belt. They are a part of our everyday lives. Commodities are bought and sold through them. A rancher in California can see and bid on cattle in Nebraska. Most of our long distance telephone calls go through them, which is why such communication is now so inexpensive compared to 50 years ago. All network, syndicated and cable television goes through them. Users of the Internet can talk to computers around the world because of these satellites. Automobile designers in Detroit and Japan work with each other in real time. No place in the world is beyond their reach. Satellites have made possible the almost unlimited use of computers and the new satellites are themselves designed by computers. Clarke now lives in Sri Lanka and sends his work from his computer to his publishers through the satellites he dreamed up.
In our valley the most common manifestation used to be the big C-Band satellite dishes. Today we see the smaller 18 inch dishes which have been made possible by compressed video technology that permits many more channels on a single, high powered satellite. One of our advertisers sells this equipment.
We like to think of ourselves as independent sorts who can take care of ourselves but in fact we’re hooked up to the rest of the world. When we pick up a copy of USA Today, we’re looking at a newspaper built on satellite technology, its stories transmitted by those same satellites from a single source to various printing plants around the country .
I used to fly into typhoons for a living, but today only a handful of airplanes do that. The Air Force’s Air Weather Service no longer owns a single airplane. It used to take many hours and great risk to bring back a black and white radar picture of a storm. Today I can get a full color picture with just a few commands from my keyboard, just minutes old, of a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Every day we have seen on our television sets the pictures of the hurricanes which have threatened or battered our country this season. We take them for granted, as they save billions of dollars and thousands of lives by warning us of their arrival. Satellites take infra-red pictures that give us information about droughts and floods, ocean currents, volcanic activity and the destruction of rain forests, to name just a few of their uses.
Next time you pick up the phone to call Aunt Bertha in Florida to see how she is after the storm, or watch television on a long winter night, you might think for a moment about Arthur Clarke, who had a big idea and truly changed our world and our mountains.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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