Thursday, March 19, 2015

Star Child

Space cadet Sir Arthur may have grown up on a farm, but he never ceased growing. His epitaph even states so, and none can disagree.

Star Child, aged 3.
The First World War was still raging when Arthur Charles Clarke was born in the small Somerset town of Minehead, in the early Sunday morning hours of December 16, 1917.

Growing up, his first love was not the stars. It was the sea, the Neptunian expanse of the deep. As a child he loved to spend his time on the Minehead beach down by the ocean shore, building sand castles and exploring the tide pools. "My youth," Clarke remembered, "was spent alternating between the seaside and my parents' small farm." Until old age he stated the "only place [he] feel[s] completely relaxed is by the edge of the sea." "Or, better still," he said, "hovering weightless beneath it, over the populous and polychromatic landscape of my favorite reef." His love for the sea stayed with him throughout his life. "How inappropriate to call this planet Earth," he sometimes mused, "when it is quite clearly Ocean."

Arthur with neighbour, 1920.
At the age of thirteen his life was about to change.

His neighbour Larry Kille—an "elderly gentleman" of "at least thirty" years of age—showed him the November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, whose cover sported none other than the planet Jupiter.

"The very first science-fiction magazine I ever saw," Clarke remembered, "had a cover by Frank Paul – and it is one of the most remarkable illustrations in the history of science fiction, as it appears to be a clear example of precognition on the part of the artist! I must have seen Amazing Stories for November 1928 about a year after it had been shipped across to England—so rumor has it, as ship's 'ballast'—and sold at Woolworth's for 3p. How I used to haunt that once-famous store during my lunch hour, in search of issues of Amazing, Wonder, and Astounding, buried like jewels in the junk-pile of detective and western pulps."

Amazing Stories,
November 1928.
His detective work paid off. He was finally able to locate an issue without apparent owner.

"Sometime towards the end of 1930, in my thirteenth year," Clarke said, "I acquired my first science fiction magazine—and my life was irrevocably changed." The magazine was the March 1930 issue of Astounding Stories.  "Its garish cover," he remembered, "showed something that looked like a cross between a submarine and a glass-dome observatory."

The Killes were influential on the young Clarke; Nellie Kille's knitting machine had him hexed: precisely crafted spinning cogs could produce flawless items in less than an hour, items a person would have to spend days perfecting. "I can still hear the clicking of the hundreds of needles and the whir of the well-oiled gear wheels," he said. "My own interest in science owes much to the fascinating hardware that Mrs. Kille operated with effortless skill."

Arthur's first pulp acquisition,
Astounding Stories March 1930.
Nellie's husband Arthur Cornish was an archaeologist and Arthur was fascinated by the fossils he got to see, the ancient animals underscoring the cosmic age of the Earth. Ever since that time, Clarke was fascinated by space science in all its various forms, leading him to build his own telescope using cast-off lenses at the age of 13. "I spent my nights mapping the moon until I knew my way around it better than my native Somerset," he said.

A little later his family could watch him blast rockets into the sky from the family farm. To young Arthur, precise engineering, astronomy, rocket science, and celestial physics all melded into one singularity, called simply space. It was to define his life.

As he whimsically said; "At thirteen, science fiction changed my life. Puberty was a close second."

He began publishing his writings in science fiction fanzines in the late '30s, and joined the British Interplanetary Society while still a teenager. At BIS he was affectionately known as "Rockets" Clarke. The society was at that point, of course, examining the possibilities of a manned mission to the moon. "Everyone thought we were totally nuts," Clarke said.

In 1936, at the age of eighteen, he moved to London, and found work as a civil servant at His Majesty's Exchequer and Audit Department. It was here that he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. With the war on the continent already underway, he rightly suspected he would be unreserved at any moment, so he sneaked off during a lunch hour and volunteered at the nearest RAF office. He was in the nick of time; two weeks later the army sent him an order to show up at the Medical Corps. Always having been slightly hemophobic, he had pulled off the narrowest of escapes. At RAF he got assigned as a radar technician, later becoming the officer in charge of new experimental techniques and equipment.

In the midst of the War, in 1943, Clarke was already an instructor at the No. 9 Radio School at Yatesbury in the British Royal Air Force, when he was given a secret assignment. He was sent to a foggy airfield at the southern tip of England where he worked with the Noble prize winning inventor of the ground-controlled approach talkdown system, a young American physicist called Luis Alvarez. The radar device could bring down an aircraft, in Clarke's words, "in one piece, instead of several." He rose to the rank of flight lieutenant, but most importanly Clarke credits the CGA endeavour with allowing him the time away from the war to work on communications satellites.

Seer of Worlds

Arthur C. Clarke as a
19-year-old London teen, 1937.
It was in October of 1945—in the aftermath of World War Two—that Clarke, at the age of 28, had published a short, 4-page treatise about broadcast-transmission devices placed in geo-stationary orbit. He called the devices Extra-Terrestrial Relays, which was also the title of his paper, in passing coining the phrase 'extra-terrestrial'. He only received 15 pounds for it and no royalties whatsoever. The article was published in the magazine Wireless World to little fanfare, but it was to have a monstrous effect on the planet.

After World War Two came to an end, Clarke enrolled at London University's King's College, where he took physics and math degrees. During this time he also worked as assistant editor of the Science Abstracts periodical. He graduated with first-class honours in 1948.

Meanwhile Clarke continued his work at the British Interplanetary Society, and was to become BIS's perhaps most visible member, becoming chairman for the first time in 1946 at the age of 29.

He finally published his first science fiction story commercially in 1946. His first book, Prelude to Space, was written in 3 hectic weeks during the summer of 1947. The following summer he wrote The Sentinel, a short story which was to have a profound impact on his career. Although the short story was not published until 1951 – the same year his Prelude to Space was finally published – it instantly became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and more importantly it planted the seeds for his most well-known book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1951 he also published his first sci-fi novel, The Sands of Mars.

It was in 1952 his career as a professional writer began. He was already influential in smaller circles, but when he could finally live off his book advances his output doubled in size. He kept writing non-fiction, as well, and he continued to do so for the remainder of his life. "My literary interests," he remarked, "are divided equally between fiction and non-fiction."

Ironically it was the proceeds from his non-fiction publications – such as his 1951 The Exploration of Space – that allowed him to throw himself at his forte: his fiction.

And that he did, with gusto.

The Godfather of the Future

His influence soon stretched further than he himself could have ever imagined. His 1951 book The Exploration of Space was used by Wernher von Braun to convince United States president John F. Kennedy it was possible to go to the Moon. On July 10, 1962, his prediction of his so called "extra-terrestrial relays" became a reality with the launch of Telstar 1. Legendary news caster Walter Cronkite from CBS requested Clarke to cover the Apollo 11 Moon landing with him. His influence was not confined to those early days, or course. Much, much later the godfather of the World Wide Web – Sir Tim Berners-Lee – mentions Arthur C. Clarkes story Dial F for Frankenstein as the inspiration for his invention.

Clarke at his home in Washington, 1952.

He foresaw a countless amount of innovations, such as the Internet and e-mail, videophones such as FaceTime and Skype, smartwatches, online shopping and banking, mobile phones, telepresence and telecommuting, search engines like Google, even laptops. Many of his causes have yet to materialize, although his unrelenting lobbying for the space elevator may one day be seen as prescience of the highest order.

Of course, his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and the way their love-child changed the history of cinema is the stuff of legend. The movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact directed by Peter Hyams were nominated for 7 Academy Awards combined.

He did acknowledge that his ideas had stretched the imagination of many people. "I'm rather proud of the fact," he said, "that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books."

First-rate modesty

Clarke himself was uncharacteristically modest about his achievements in science, however. Not even when the discussion touched on the fact he had conceived and conceptualized – and predicted – the communication satellite a full two decades before it became a reality, was he prepared to take any undeserved credit for his work.

I may have advanced the cause of space communications
by approximately fifteen minutes.

He did not bring about the Space Age, he said. "Well first of all I can't claim priority for any of these ideas," he said in a 2000 interview. "It’s very hard to find anything that some writer hasn't said in perhaps embryonic form some time in the past."

Clarke in 1971 with sideburns doing his best Asimov impression.

He hesitantly accepted an ancillary role as a promoter of ideas, but he consistently rejected the notion that he alone would have come up with the concept. "I suspect my early disclosure," he said in a 1982 speech, "may have advanced the cause of space communications by approximately fifteen minutes."

He also was rather unassuming about any rights associated with his designs. "You can't patent an orbit," he once facetiously reflected. "And the only reason I didn't patent the Comsat was that I didn't know how to build one. Had I been a bit smarter, I'd be a trillionaire." He did know that the concept was not possible to patent, and often joked about it. "I'm often asked why I didn't try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, 'A patent is really a license to be sued.' "

In another case of jocular self-deprecation he said the only reason the orbit – the Clarke Orbit or the Clarke Belt – is named after him is "because it rolls off the tongue easier than geo-stationary orbit."

Yet we know that he was both secretly and openly proud of his accomplishments. And rightfully so. He was also acutely aware of the extent of his renown, and needed no public obelisks in his name to know it. His exegi monumentum, he declared, was readily available for everyone to see.

"Go to any well-stocked library," he said, "and just look around."


Endlessly fascinated, and never one to take himself too seriously, he was an inspiring visionary who never stopped growing.

Clarke wearing his favourite Nehru jacket in 2001.

The planet we inhabit today is different because he was here.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke passed away in the early Wednesday morning hours of March 19, 2008.

He was 90.

Images copyright ©1928 Paizo Publishing, ©1930 Penny Publications, ©1919-2015 Arthur C Clarke Estate, ©2001 Shahidul Alam.

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