Technology: He wrote the future
On Arthur C. Clarke’s centenary, Andrew Robinson lauds a prescient, original writer.
By Andrew Robinson
Jan 18 2017
When Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008, Nature’s obituarist — astrophysicist and science-fiction writer Gregory Benford — hailed him as “the most famous of science-fiction writers” (G. Benford Nature 452, 546; 2008). The makers of Hollywood biopic Steve Jobs (2015) seem to agree: the film opens with black-and-white footage of Clarke from a television interview filmed in 1974, two years before Jobs co-founded Apple Computer. Balding and bespectacled, Clarke stands opposite the interviewer and his young son in a large office thrumming with massive computers. He captivates them and us when he says: “The big difference when he grows up — in fact you won’t have to wait for the year 2001 — is that he will have in his own house … a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life.”
Clarke, who was born 100 years ago, was famously prescient. He anticipated, for instance, satellite communications and powerful computers in the form of HAL in the cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He also popularized the ‘space elevator’. That concept, which now has some solid scientific support (see Naturehttp://doi.org/fv4rxv; 2007), was central to The Fountains of Paradise (1979), one of his score of science-fiction novels.
As an editor of Clarke’s non-fiction in his eighties, I was struck by his unquenchable curiosity about science, literature and civilization — human and extraterrestrial. He would usually agree to my request for a book review after an initially discouraging response on grounds of frantic busyness. The result seldom needed any editing.
Clarke’s interest in telecommunications began in rural Somerset, UK. His father had been an engineer in charge of telephone and telegraph circuits; his mother, a telegraph operator. The young Arthur received cast-off equipment, such as telephones, switch-gear and a photocell from his relative George Grimstone, an engineer who taught him to build wireless crystal sets. Clarke also experimented with homemade rockets on family farmland. He read David Lasser’s introduction to rocketry and space flight, The Conquest of Space (1931); devoured US science-fiction pulp magazines; and joined the British Interplanetary Society, founded in 1933 to promote space flight (then seen as a concept of the lunatic fringe by most scientists and engineers).
In 1936, having scored 100% for arithmetic in the civil-service entrance examination, Clarke moved to London and worked for the Exchequer and Audit Department. During the Second World War, he gained experience in electronic engineering while building and testing ground-controlled radar in the Royal Air Force — later dramatized in his sole non-science-fiction novel, Glide Path (1963).
In 1945, Clarke inadvertently launched a career as a futurologist with his outline for a geostationary communications satellite. In a letter (‘V2 for ionosphere research?’) published in February’s issue of Wireless World and inspired by the German V2 rockets then landing on London, he made a revolutionary proposal:
An ‘artificial satellite’ at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth’s surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.
Clarke realistically concluded: “I’m afraid this isn’t going to be of the slightest use to our postwar planners, but I think it is the ultimate solution to the problem.” He followed up with a more detailed piece in Wireless World that October, envisioning “space-stations” that relied on thermionic valves serviced by an onboard crew supplied by atomic-powered rockets.