, Salem, MA


July 7, 2012

The Telstar revolution

ANDOVER, Maine — It was the largest air-inflated structure in the world, 161 feet high and 210 feet wide, constructed of polyester and synthetic rubber. Inside the balloon was a 177-foot-long horn-shaped antenna that weighed 380 tons. Not a trace of it remains. But here in a tiny rural town nestled in a valley that provided natural shielding from radio interference, a revolution was born 50 years ago Tuesday.

That revolution doesn’t seem remarkable today, but a half-century ago the notion of sending a television signal from North America to Europe shook the world. A generation remembers the first transmitted image vividly — a fuzzy shot of an American flag fluttering in a Maine village — but millions more have been affected by the telecasts that have become unremarkable as a result of what happened here — by the televised coverage of Olympic violence, royal weddings, airplane hijackings, the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi.

Settled in 1789, the year the Constitution took effect, Andover for nearly two centuries was a tranquil outpost near the Canadian and New Hampshire borders, midway between Boston and Montreal but resolutely nowhere. Its citizens ran small farms and worked in the forests, always showing themselves, as a resolution by the state legislature noted, as “very resilient, resourceful and independent.” But people didn’t move too quickly here, toward the future or anyplace else; if you drove your horse over the covered bridge faster than a walk, you were vulnerable to a $3 fine.

Until Telstar — a 3-foot-diameter sphere weighing 170 pounds with 1,064 transistors and 1,464 diodes — was sent aloft by a Boeing Thor Delta booster that split the skies and opened the age of satellite communications. The iconic black-and-white image was so stunning a breakthrough that President John F. Kennedy predicted it would “throw open to us the vision of an era of international communications.”

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