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They Could Have Been Billionaires: Arthur C. Clarke


For envisioning the concept of satellite broadcasting, the novelist made next to nothing.

"When you stumble on something which is really terrific, you don't rush into print. You wait until you have overwhelming evidence -- unless you're afraid someone else is hot on the track. Then you may issue an ambiguous report that will establish your priority at a later date, without giving too much away at the moment -- like the famous cryptogram that Huygens put out when he detected the rings of Saturn."

Arthur C. Clarke, the space-age visionary and world renowned science fiction author, proffered this savvy advice about scientists protecting their inventions via a fictional character in his 1954 short story "Patent Pending." The forethought with which Clarke imbued his character to defend his intellectual property was perhaps Clarke's attempt to rewrite his own past. Nine years earlier, Clarke hastily published his idea for satellite communications in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World. In his article "Extra-Terrestrial Relays -- Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?", Clarke reduced to practical application a system that used geostationary orbit to relay radio signals -- without ever getting a patent.

Just over a decade after publishing that article and only three years after writing "Patent Pending," Sputnik I was launched, and on April 6, 1965, Hughes Aircraft Company -- now Boeing (BA) -- placed Early Bird, the world's first commercial communications satellite, into orbit. By the time Clarke died in 2008, global revenues for the satellite industry totaled $144.4 billion. Of this amount, Clarke made exactly £12 -- in the form of the magazine article fee.

In that short story Clarke foreshadowed his own hapless fate, writing, " often the scientist emerges second best in his dealings with the world of finance." However, having earned, literally, a few bucks off one of the most commercially lucrative ideas of the 20th century, Clarke not only failed to place second, he didn't even make the roster.

While Clarke was uncanny in his prophecies of various scientific advances, including space travel, compact computers, and cloning, he tended to underestimate the speed at which the technology would be realized. He didn't believe manned satellites would exist until 1970 and couldn't imagine a moon landing earlier than 1978. Such was the case with his communications satellite idea, which he predicted was decades from being actualized. In his authorized biography, Clarke admitted, "I never really expected to see it in my life; I also... seem to recall thinking it was an idea for all humanity, so I should publish to prevent anyone else from taking out a patent. As indeed I did..."

In all fairness, patenting the idea may not have even been a viable option. "I learned from my patent attorney that even if I had tried to patent the communications satellite in 1945, the patent would have been rejected because the required technology did not yet exist, and the patent wouldn't have been worth getting because its life would only have been 17 years. The patent would have expired the year before the Early Bird was launched."

Clarke also often remarked, "A patent is really a license to be sued." In fact, the legal hurdles Clarke would have had to jump in order to acquire a patent for geosynchronous communications satellites was the subject of a 1961 short story by Leonard Lockhard titled "The Lagging Profession."

Even without cashing in on the hundred billion-dollar global space economy, Clarke managed to fare pretty well throughout his life and career. He was a prolific author of more than 80 books, including the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also gained recognition as a television personality, hosting Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, World of Strange Powers, and Mysterious Universe and covered three Apollo space missions for CBS news alongside Walter Cronkite. He served as chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and was knighted in 2000 for his contributions to literature and science. And what Sir Clarke lacked in monetary reward for his communications satellite invention, he compensated in prestigious honors and several awards from around the world. The geostationary orbit Clarke first described in 1945, now home to roughly 300 satellites, is known officially as "the Clarke orbit."

If society was impressed with Clarke's communications satellite idea, get a load of what he predicted would be his real legacy. In his award-winning 1979 novel Fountains of Paradise, Clarke envisioned a space elevator linking earth to outer space. According to NASA, it's a real possibility within the next 100 years.

Now if only Clarke had invented a time machine to travel into the future in order to witness it. Oh, and also to go back into history to get the patent.
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