The first satellite dish

Where is there an important satellite dish known as Arthur?

Arthur hears the call

Antenna One at Goonhilly Earth Station is nicknamed “Arthur”
BT Heritage  

Above we ask: where is there an important satellite dish known as Arthur? A hint was given with the information that the name comes from King Arthur in the “Knights of the Round Table” legends, which are set in fifth-century Cornwall, in the far west of England. And that is where the satellite dish is located, at Goonhilly Earth Station. Arthur is an important piece of history because it took part in exchanging the first ever live television signals to be sent across an ocean via communication satellite. It also pioneered the parabolic design of what we now call satellite “dishes.”

Arthur’s official name is simply “Goonhilly Antenna One.” The dish weighs 1118 tonnes and is 26 metres in diameter. Perhaps its shape is another reason why its nickname comes from the king of the “Round Table”? Certainly, it was a step beyond the “horn” design of previous satellite antennas, and because of its effectiveness, Arthur’s parabolic form is now used by satellite stations across the world.

Live, transatlantic TV

Arthur has an uninterrupted view of the horizon over the Atlantic, giving it the longest possible contact with low-orbit satellites. This made the dish ideal for use with Telstar, the world’s first commercial communication satellite, launched from Cape Canaveral in the United States the day before the historic transatlantic broadcast. The test signals across the Atlantic were conducted with satellite stations at Andover in the United States and Pleumeur Bodou in France.

Two days after the first live television transmissions between the United States and Europe, the satellite link was used for the world’s first telephone call by satellite, made from London by Fred Kappel, Chairman of AT&T, (the owners of Telstar), to US Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Telstar could handle one TV channel at a time, or 500 phone calls. Nowadays, satellites can carry 500 TV channels and thousands of data circuits.

 Engineers at Goonhilly Earth Station
receive a satellite message

Goonhilly is the greatest

The UK Post Office’s Head of Research at the time of Arthur’s debut was John Bray. “The design of the British ground station, with its massive open parabolic dish aerial, was outstandingly successful,” he recalled, noting that the precedent was then followed by satellite communication systems across the globe.

Arthur remains fully operational and is part of what is now the largest satellite station in the world. Goonhilly Earth Station has more than 60 antennas, reaching every corner of the globe. It handles millions of international phone calls, television programmes and ship and aircraft communications every minute, as well as dense Internet traffic.   

                                         King or visionary?

These great strides in communications had been predicted in 1945 by scientist and thinker Arthur C. Clarke, when he suggested that microwave radio signals could be transmitted across the world through being bounced from an orbiting satellite. Rather than a semi-mythical king, therefore, maybe we should consider Goonhilly Earth Station’s Antenna One as being named “Arthur” after him!

W. John Bray a communications pioneer   

The Telstar trials showed that satellites had a commercial future in world telecommunications, heralding the introduction of services now taken for granted. The British radio engineer John Bray played a key role in the design and operation of “Arthur,” or Goonhilly Antenna One. “The construction of the British ground station was a daunting task,” he said later. “It was a time of considerable tension: none of the complex equipment could be fully tested before Telstar first appeared over the horizon and all this had to be done with millions of viewers waiting on both sides of the Atlantic.”

However, after the first test transmissions were received from Andover (USA) on 10 July 1962, and after solving an initial problem due to aerial polarization reversal, “excellent quality TV pictures were received from, and transmitted to, Andover on 11 July,” Bray said. To celebrate the success, he enjoyed a crate of the best champagne together with his colleagues.

Bray was born in 1911 in Portsmouth, UK, and learned the basics of radio through tinkering with crystal sets as a boy. He won a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College, London, then joined the British Post Office, eventually becoming head of communications systems. He was also active in the work of ITU’s Standardization Sector.

John Bray died in 2004, just four days before his ninety-third birthday. Two years earlier, he was an honoured guest at Goonhilly for the fortieth anniversary of Arthur’s historic link-up. “They were tremendously exciting times,” Bray said. “We really did feel like pioneers. It was a privilege to be involved in such an important event.”

Source: ITU NEWS Magazine
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