Satellite man’s vision of the future

Pioneer: Stephen Birkill at home in Ecclesall Road, Whirlow
Pioneer: Stephen Birkill at home in Ecclesall Road, Whirlow
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He was the first man to receive a satellite-transmitted programme and changed the way we watch TV - meet Stephen J Birkill, the man who scoured the heavens from his Grenoside home.

FORTY per cent of us have Sky TV.

Pioneer: Stephen Birkill in the 1970s with his homemade satellite television equipment

Pioneer: Stephen Birkill in the 1970s with his homemade satellite television equipment

We think nothing of tuning into Al Jazeera, Russia Today or the Africa Channel.

But rewind 37 years and the picture of television, indeed the television picture itself, was very different.

There were only three channels in the UK at that time - BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. The idea of tuning in to television broadcasts from Russia or the Middle East was unheard of.

But in the back garden of a modest Grenoside home, Sheffield satellite enthusiast Stephen J Birkill was enjoying Sudanese air freshener adverts, Russian football matches, and predictably hot weather forecasts from Saudi Arabia.

It was 1975 and, with just a modest homemade receiver and a homemade dish - built with the help of his father, a joiner - Stephen became the first man in the world to receive satellite-transmitted programmes at home.

“I knew there was a future in satellite television,” says Stephen. “It was a gut feeling that gave me the inspiration. I had done the sums and I knew that it was technically possible, I just had to prove that it was practically possible.”

He made the first breakthrough at 12.30pm on December 13, 1975. With a five-foot dish and a receiver built on a circuit board, Stephen managed to tune into an Indian TV programme.

“I was knocked out,” he said. “I had proven it was possible and finally got recognition for it.”

The programme he tuned into was part of a NASA experiment known as SITE, which was intended to beam literacy programmes to villages in rural India.

“There would be communal televisions in these villages and people would sit and watch them together in a seating area,” said Stephen.

“I knew where certain satellites were stationed and calculated where to point my dish.”

Stephen already had a background in broadcasting and electronics. He worked as a transmitter manager at the BBC and had even started experimenting with electronics and television as a teenager.

“I remember at school being interested in the continental interferences you’d sometimes get during bad weather on television. It made me think about what other foreign channels could be picked up,” he said.

Stephen’s hunch about the potential for satellites as a conduit for television broadcasting came before its time.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the small, domestic satellite dish became widely-used.

And Stephen was key in the development of the technology that made it possible.

“I couldn’t afford a 30-foot dish, like they would have had at broadcast centres, so I compensated for that by developing the electronics so that home dishes could be much smaller,” he says.

Stephen applied this theory to developing the Amstrad receiver that was reasonably cheap to produce and small enough for the home.

It was the start of the mass emergence of satellite television.

And it was exactly as Stephen predicted back in 1981, on Blue Peter of all programmes.

The then long-haired, flares-clad Stephen foresaw that by the end of the 1980s British homes would have their own small dishes.

His foresight and expertise has been well-recognised. Stephen has contributed to the US Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences for the Library of Congress on ‘Soviet Space Programmes, 1971-75’.

Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer and inventor, envisaged what we now know as a communication satellite as early as 1945 when, writing in Wireless World, he said, ‘An ‘artificial satellite’ at the correct distance from the earth would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth’s surface.

‘Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet’.

His foresight came true and later, in his book, How The World Was One, written in 1992, Clarke recognised Stephen’s achievement by saying: “During the SITE experiment Steve Birkill astonished everyone by receiving, in the heart of England, the programmes intended for Indian villages.”

Even since 1992, technology has moved on.

Now, according to NASA, there are around 3,000 satellites operating in Earth’s orbit.

But of the 3,000 in orbit there are around 200 beaming down television signals to our homes, across the globe, whether crammed city streets or remote villages.

But the origins of the satellite date back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957.

Then, as space technology was developed, satellites became vital instruments for military and commercial purposes.

Now, satellites can be launched into space for as little as a few million dollars, or, in the case of larger satellites, tens of millions of dollars.

The proliferation of satellites in space has meant that satellite television - such as Sky - is more readily and cheaply available.

And it’s fitting that the Blue Peter feature of 1981 ends with the presenter saying: “It’s exciting to think that in the not too-distant future, you and I may be able to scan the heavens from all over the world and you never know, one day you may be able to watch Blue Peter - beamed from a satellite.”

Imagine that...

Satellite facts

Satellites have an operating life-span between five and 20 years.

In 2008 the USA had around 1,000 satellites in orbit, Germany had almost 30, China around 80 and the UK around 25.

The largest manmade satellite currently in orbit around the Earth is the International Space Station. But some satellites can be as small as 10cm in diameter.

Satellites refer only to the instrument in orbit, not to the dish attached to one’s house.

The satellites from which we receive TV signals are around 22,300 miles above the Equator.

Arthur C Clarke’s significance to our understanding of satellites is such that there is even an orbit named after him. Clarke Orbit, as it is known, is a geostationary orbit around 36,000km above the equator. It was named by the International Astronomical Union.