Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke: A Biography
adapted from the biography found on the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation website

Arthur C. Clarke’s legacy bridges the worlds of the arts and the sciences. His work ranged from scientific discovery to science fiction, from technical application to entertainment. As an engineer, as a futurist, and as a humanist, Clarke has influenced numerous artists, scientists, and engineers working today, and through his broad body of work, and through the organizations keeping his legacy alive like the Clarke Foundation and this Institute, he continues to inspire future generations around the world.

Biographical Sketch
Arthur Charles Clarke was born to an English farming family in the seaside town of Minehead, in the county of Somerset in southwestern England, on December 16, 1917. As a child, he enjoyed stargazing and reading American science fiction magazines, which sparked his lifelong enthusiasm for space sciences. After moving to London in 1936, Clarke was able to pursue his interest further by joining the British Interplanetary Society (BIS.) He worked with astronautic material in the Society, contributed to the BIS Bulletin, and began writing science fiction.

I’m sometimes asked how I would like to be remembered. I’ve had a diverse career
as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I
want to be remembered most as a writer — one who entertained readers, and, hopefully,
stretched their imagination as well.

—Arthur C. Clarke

After World War II erupted in 1939, Arthur Clarke joined the Royal Air Force and served as a radar instructor and technician from 1941 to 1946. He was an officer in charge of the first radar talk-down equipment, the Ground Controlled Approach, during its experimental trials. The technique is used by aircraft control to guide aircraft to a safe landing based on radar images during inclement weather. Clarke’s only non-science-fiction novel, Glide Path, was based on his experiences in this project. After the war, Clarke returned to London, where he was awarded a Fellowship at King’s College, London, where he obtained a first class honors degree in Physics and Mathematics in 1948. He also returned to the British Interplanetary Society, and served as the Society’s president in 1946-47 and 1951-1953.

Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1956, largely to pursue his interest in underwater exploration along the country’s coast as well as on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He lived first in the coastal village of Unawatuna and then in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city. In 1962, Clarke was diagnosed with polio, which reduced his diving activities. In 1988, he was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, and he was largely confined to a wheelchair until he passed away at the age of 90 on March 19, 2008.

Arthur Clarke’s remarkable lifetime work was recognized by both the country of his birth and his adopted home country. In 1988, Queen Elizabeth II honored Clarke with a Knighthood, formally conferred by Prince Charles in Sri Lanka two years later. In 2005, Clarke was awarded Sri Lankabhimanya (The Pride of Sri Lanka), Sri Lanka’s highest civilian honor.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Engineer
Arthur Clarke’s experiences during World War II and education in physics and mathematics made him well poised to make significant contributions in engineering after the war. In 1945, Clarke published his landmark scholarly paper “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” in the British magazine Wireless World (download PDF). In the paper, Clarke set out the first principles of global communication via satellites placed in geostationary orbits. A geostationary satellite orbits the Earth above the equator so that the period of the orbit (the time it takes the satellite to complete one orbit around the Earth) is the same as the Earth’s rotational period (the time it takes the Earth to rotate once around its axis.) This means that to an observer located on the surface of the Earth, the satellite appears not to move in the sky but stay at a fixed position. The idea of these kinds of orbits was originally proposed in 1928, but Clarke was the first to suggest that geostationary orbits would be ideal for establishing worldwide telecommunication relays. Since a satellite in a geostationary orbit does not appear to move in the sky, antennas on the ground do not have to track the satellite across the sky but can be pointed permanently to one location, which makes communications between ground stations and satellites easier.

Over the next decades, Clarke’s discovery evolved from his original, pre-computer era idea of using large, manned space stations to act as relays, to the small, unmanned, robotic telecommunications satellites used today. During this time, Clarke worked with scientists and engineers in the United States in the development of spacecraft and launch systems. After the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, the discussion of the use of outer space by different nations of the Earth become an important global issue. Clarke was involved in these discussions by, e.g., addressing the United Nations during their deliberations on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In the 1950s, Clarke started corresponding with Dr. Harry Wexler, the chief of the Scientific Services Division of the U.S. Weather Bureau, about satellite applications for weather forecasting. These discussions led to Dr. Wexler being the leading force behind a new branch of meteorology, where rockets and satellites were used for meteorological research and operations. Clarke saw his vision of global telecommunications via satellites start to become reality in 1964 with the launch of the first geostationary communication satellite Syncom 3, which was used to broadcast the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo to the United States. Today’s world relies so heavily on global satellite telecommunications networks that it would be difficult to imagine what the world would look like without them.

Arthur Clarke’s engineering work brought him numerous awards and honors, including the 1982 Marconi International Fellowship, a gold medal of the Franklin Institute, the Vikram Sarabhai Professorship of the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, the Lindbergh Award, and a Fellowship of King’s College, London. Today, the geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the equator, which Clarke first described as useful for satellite communication relays, is named the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Futurist
As important as Arthur Clarke’s achievements in engineering were to the modern world, he is at least as well known as a futurist, trying to predict what the world of tomorrow might look like, and as a popularizer of science, helping make science accessible to everyone. He is perhaps best known as a world-renowned science fiction writer, starting with the first story he sold professionally, “Rescue Party”, which was written in March 1945 and appeared in the magazine Astounding Science in May 1946. His body of work contains more than 70 books of fiction and non-fiction, and he received numerous awards for his writing.

Clarke’s most famous non-fiction work as a futurist may be the book Profiles of the Future, based on a series of essays he started writing in 1958 and published in book form in 1962. In the book he envisioned the probable shape of tomorrow’s world, including a timetable of possible inventions from the present to the year 2100. He often incorporated his visions of the technological advances in the near future into his science fiction writing. A prime example of this is his 1979 novel Fountains of Paradise, which describes the construction of a space elevator, a giant structure rising from the ground and linking with a satellite in a geostationary orbit. While concepts for various kinds of space elevators had been discussed for decades, Clarke helped bring the idea to the larger public consciousness and envisioned a future where the use of space elevators to lift payloads to orbit would make rocket launches obsolete.

2001: A Space Odyssey – Official Trailer [1968]

Clarke strived to engage audiences in different media. In 1964, he started working with the noted film producer Stanley Kubrick on a science fiction movie script. The result of the collaboration was the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968 and is widely recognized as one of the most influential films ever made. Clarke and Kubrick were nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the film. Clarke also wrote a novelization of the film; the resulting book, which is based on the early drafts of the film and differs from it in some ways, also came out in 1968. Clarke published a sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, in 1982, and worked with director Peter Hyams on the movie version, which was released two years later. One of the notable aspects of this collaboration was the very advanced way (for the time) it was done: using a Kaypro computer and a modem to link Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka and Peter Hyams in Los Angeles. This novel approach was described later in the book The Odyssey File – The Making of 2010.

Clarke worked for decades in television, bringing scientific and engineering achievements to people’s homes across the world. He worked alongside Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra for the CBS coverage of the Apollo 12 and 15 space missions in the United States. His TV series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1981), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1984), and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994) have been shown in many countries around the world. Clarke also contributed to other TV series about space, such as Walter Cronkite’s Universe series in 1981.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Humanist
Arthur Clarke was always interested in the future of human race, not only in terms of what that future might look like, technologically speaking, but also in terms of what kind of a world we, the current inhabitants of our home planet, would leave to the future generations. As a result, Clarke was always concerned about the relationship of the human race to the natural world around it.

An expression of Clarke’s interest in the interaction of humans with nature was his enthusiasm for scuba diving. Clarke’s undersea explorations connected the purely personal enjoyment of the activity to history of the areas he explored. For example, in 1956 he discovered the underwater ruins of the original Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, during a scuba diving expedition with the photographer Mike Wilson.

Clarke was devoted to making sure the next generation would receive the best education possible. He not only influenced young minds through his writing but also worked in formal education. He served as the Chancellor of the Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka in 1979-2002 and as the first Chancellor of the International Space University in 1989-2004.

Clarke was concerned about global climate change and what effect it may have on the future of humanity. He always stressed the urgent need for humanity to move beyond the use of fossil fuels, which he considered one of our most self-destructive behaviors. Yet Clarke was always optimistic about the future of humanity; he firmly believed that technological achievements would solve our current problems and lead to a better and brighter future for the entire human race.

It is Clarke’s optimism for the future that made him an ideal spokesperson for the importance of people across the globe working together to solve the problems of today and create a better world for all of humanity. The organizations carrying Clarke’s name, from the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation to the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Science Education, are proud to continue Clarke’s legacy of inspiring the present and future generations of Earth, our home planet.