Friday, February 8, 2013

Fifty Seconds of Fame

We had some visitors last fall, a TV crew from the Japanese network NHK. They were doing an episode about communications satellites for Cosmic Front, a show devoted to space technology and space exploration. Since my father John R. Pierce played a major role at Bell Labs in the development of communications satellites with Echo and Telstar, they wanted to interview me. The show was broadcast Dec. 13, and here’s how the English language NHK site described the pioneers it celebrated:

Two extraordinarily talented men, communications engineering expert John Pierce and aeronautical engineering specialist Harold Rosen, put all their weight behind the program, and achieved enormous leaps in communications satellite technology in only three years. They also embarked on developing groundbreaking satellites that allowed stable communications: geosynchronous satellites that from the ground seem to hover over the Earth, as depicted in the science fiction novels of the time. In 1964, Syncom 3, the world's first geosynchronous satellite, relayed television images of the Tokyo Olympics from Japan, in the Far East, to the rest of the world. In this episode of Cosmic Front, we explore the dramatic story of the engineers who used meticulous calculations and unlikely ideas to turn space into a communications highway.

I was in college, or home for the summer, during the run-up to Echo (which was just a balloon, off which test phone calls between Goldstone, California, and Holmdel, New Jersey, were bounced in 1960); and Telstar (an active satellite, over which the very first intercontinental broadcasts were transmitted in 1962). I remember witnessing both, but I really didn’t know a lot of the background because my father didn’t talk about it much, and he and my mother broke up in 1961.  I actually knew a lot more about two other people who promoted the idea of communications satellites – George O. Smith and Arthur C. Clarke.

During and just after World War II, Smith had published a series of stories called Venus Equilateral in Astounding Science Fiction. These were collected in a 1947 book edition, which has a cover diagram showing the location of the communications satellite, placed at the Trojan position in the orbit of Venus to relay radio messages between Venus and Earth. This was a manned space station, and the problems that it faced – such as reaching a ship in space instead of another planet – were treated as practically insuperable. This was before masers. It was also before transistors; “high” technology in sf was still giant vacuum tubes. Clarke and my father both read Smith’s stories in Astounding, and I remember my father having a the book – I ordered a copy of the same edition to show the NHK people, and a shot of that made in into the episode.

Clarke was inspired to write a piece for Wireless World in 1945, proposing a geosynchronous communications satellite. I was familiar with that, because Clarke has referred to it in other writings, including a magazine piece (for Playboy, I think) about how he lost a billion dollars by inventing Telstar but failing to patent the idea. I wasn’t aware of my father having done anything of the sort before Echo until I read The Idea Factory, a history of the Bell Labs by Jon Gertner, in which John R. Pierce figures quite prominently. It turned out that he’d drafted a short proposal in 1954, and a longer one in 1959. But it was only when we watched the DVD of the NHK show Jan. 17 that we got to see the first, dug out of the Bell Labs archives, dated July 26, 1954, and signed by my father. That was the high point of the DVD for me.

I may have been a disappointment to Chinami Inaishi, Los Angeles representative of NHK, and the crew she brought to our home Oct. 18. They wanted more of the “inside story” of Echo and Telstar than I knew, and wanted me to talk about what it was like to be the son of such a famous man. The thing is, when I was a child, I didn’t think of him as a Famous Man – famous men were presidents and movie stars and people like Albert Einstein. And my father didn’t talk shop much at the dinner table; I remember hearing about traveling wave tubes, but not about transistors, although he gave them their name and was the supervisor of the team that created them – Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley. I remember we visited the Brattains once or twice when I was a kid, but I didn’t have any idea at the time who he was. Just a friend of my father’s.

Anyway, I ended up with maybe fifty seconds on the screen at most; from the visual context (my voice was overdubbed, like the voices of nearly everyone else interviewed, by the Japanese translation), it must have been mostly about how we had the first TV in our neighborhood in 1947 because of our Bell Labs connection. They asked me about science fiction, and I think I spoke well about that, but there wasn’t room for it. But I can’t complain: how many people get on national TV (here or in Japan) at all? There were amusing things in the show as it aired, such as re-creations of crucial events that involved my father and others – only the actor playing my father looked nothing at all like him.

But there was another key player, who kept showing up in archival photos and re-created scenes, some with my father. I didn’t know who he was, but could make out that he must be the man behind Syncom, the first geosynchronous communications satellite. After watching the DVD, I did a Google image search for “Syncom and Inventor” – and up  popped one of the stills used in the show. It was Harold Rosen, born in 1926. I knew he had to be pretty old, yet in amazingly good health, because there are scenes of him shot by NHK working out at Muscle Beach and on a rowing machine, as well as talking about his part in communications satellites. Wikipedia says he still consults for Boeing on  design of new satellite systems. What a man!

Isn’t the Internet wonderful!

After the Oct. 18 interview, Marcia and I had dinner with the NHK people at a local Japanese restaurant. I wanted to show my appreciation for Japanese culture; among other things, I mentioned Twilight Samurai (2002), set about the time of the Meiji restoration, when the one-time warriors had gone into business. Of course, the NHK people didn’t know what I was talking about, based on the English title. But one of them got out his mobile and looked it up (the original title is Tasogare Seibei (たそがれ清兵衛).
      Aha! He liked it too.

Isn’t the Internet wonderful!