The official obituaries have already been written, most eloquently, and I'm sure you've read them. This is a personal remembrance of Arthur Charles Clarke, science fiction author extraordinare, advisor to The SETI League, life member of AMSAT, and the world's second greatest communications engineer, who passed away on 18 March 2008, at the age of 90, of complications arising from post-polio syndrome.
Although Clarke has had a direct influence on my whole career (whose hasn't he influenced?), and we had corresponded from time to time, I did not actually meet him in the flesh until January of 2000. It was a memorable meeting (more about which later). Certainly the first Clarke SF I read (in high school) included Childhood's End and Prelude to Space. But it was his brief article 'Extraterrestrial Relays,' in the monthly radio journal Wireless World, that had its most profound early impact on me.
In 1961, I was a high school student, and a radio ham, and the youngster sitting in the back of the room at Project OSCAR meetings, watching my mentors design and build the world's first non-government communications satellite. I remember thinking 'this is what I want to be when I grow up.' We had all read Clarke's seminal article, and (although OSCAR 1 was a low-orbiter) were already thinking about the geosynchronous orbit that he 'invented' back in 1945.
Fast forward to the early 1970s. I had become an aerospace engineer, and was running a small Silicon Valley microwave company, developing receivers for the first geosynchronous earth imaging and communications satellites. I had a small (16 foot - gigantic by today's standards) satellite TV dish in my back yard, and read in Coop's Satellite Digest that Clarke himself had a similar dish perched on the balcony of his Colombo residence.
That Clarke lived in Sri Lanka bore a certain technological irony. Because the Earth's center of mass is not at its geographical center (ours is a lumpy planet), even perfectly circular satellite orbits tend to decay over time. From the Clarke Belt, if active station-keeping is disabled (or if the satellites run out of the hydrazine fuel burned by their thrusters), the birds tend to drift to the 'low' point in their orbit, a stable resting point over the Indian ocean. This satellite graveyard was well in view of Arthur's five meter dish, so I like to think that the dormant geosats were all going home to papa.
In 1979 (by now an engineering professor), I chanced to be in Hawaii, touring the Comsat telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C) station on the North end of Oahu. My host showed me a brief PR film called "Pathways to the World," narrated by none other than ACC. There was a scene showing him standing under his dish, and I thought this would be a great thing to show my students. I asked the Comsat people how I might obtain a print of the film. "Do you have access to an Intelsat terminal?" I was asked. I did indeed (my old homebrew 16 foot dish and C-band receiver). I was given a satellite name, and a transponder number, and a time about a week hence. When I arrived home on the Mainland I aimed my dish and tuned my receiver appropriately, and videotaped "Pathways to the World." How's that for appropriate use of Clarke's technology?
I've since shown that tape to a couple of thousand students, and still cherish it in my video collection. Following the US Congress canceling the NASA SETI program in 1993, several organizations (included the nonprofit, membership-supported SETI League) emerged to fill the void. I was tapped as The SETI League's Executive Director, and one of my first tasks was to recruit luminaries to serve on our advisory board. Arthur accepted graciously, without hesitation. I enjoyed our rich email correspondence these past several years, touching sometimes on SETI matters, sometimes on communications technology and science, and sometimes on science fiction. When I went on lecture tour to India in 2000, Sir Arthur kindly invited me to take a side-trip to Colombo, and pay him a visit.
Arriving at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, I saw a familiar face in the lobby -- Arthur's brother Fred, whom I had met in the UK a few years prior. Not only did I not know we were staying in the same hotel; I had no idea Fred was in Sri Lanka! That's how small a world we inhabit, and Arthur helped to make it so. Fred's wife Babs had just died two months prior, and he came to visit his brother, and to mourn. Fred and I stayed up most of the night together, sharing songs and poetry, and reminiscing about this elegant woman who dazzled me the one time I had met her.
Next day, it was off to Arthur's home (Fred and I together.) When questioned by the hotel concierge earlier as to my business in Colombo (there was a war on, so they asked such questions), I had simply said I was there to visit a friend. Now, as I hired a car and gave that same concierge the address, his eyes widened in a mixture of recognition, surprise and respect. It seems Arthur's house is well known in Colombo!
You may recall that when Isaac Asimov died a few years back, Clarke eulogized him as 'the world's second-greatest science fiction writer.' That gave me an idea.
Visiting Arthur in his home, I brought the customary gift. Not the traditional bottle of wine, since I no longer live in California; instead, I wrote the song 'Extraterrestrial Relays' , brought along my guitar, and had a chance to sing it to Arthur, his brother, and his staff. Arthur was delighted, and asked for a copy. I was prepared, and made him a formal presentation of the original. The sheet music is inscribed "to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the world's second greatest communications engineer." I heard later that Arthur had framed that page, and placed it on the wall in the room of his house which he wryly called his "ego chamber."
Arthur once told me that he would gladly lend his name and support to our SETI League efforts, and that I could feel free to ask him for anything -- except money. I respected that request, figuring that his name on the masthead was worth far more than millions in the bank. But, on my one visit to Colombo, he gave me a cheque anyway. And that's a story in itself:
When Clarke invented the geostationary communications satellite (OK, so some will say that Tsiokolvskii really invented it; Clarke merely refined and published it), he coined the contraction ComSat, for Communications Satellite. He contributed the name into the public domain, never expecting such technology to emerge within his lifetime. Years later, when the Communications Satellite Corporation was formed, they adopted the trademark Comsat. But their leaders knew where the term really came from, and, though under no legal obligation to do so, wanted to make a token payment to Clarke, in gratitude. So, they gave him one share of Comsat common stock.
Over the years, what with stock splits and dividend reinvestments, that one share had multiplied to several, and Clarke began to receive small cheques in the mail from Comsat from time to time. I was in his house when one of those checks arrived, and just happened to be talking to Arthur while he was going through the mail. He promptly handed over to me a dividend cheque from Comsat, saying "here -- for The SETI League."
Only, I never cashed that cheque. It's framed now, and hanging on my wall, and some poor Comsat accountant is probably wondering to this day why their accounts show a discrepancy of $4.75.
Now, whenever I look at that cheque, I will fondly remember Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, the world's second greatest communications engineer. Next time I see Fred Clarke, it will, sad to say, again be to mourn.
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this page last updated 18 March 2008
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