ANDOVER, Maine -- It was the largest air-inflated structure in the world -- 161 feet high and 210 feet wide, constructed of polyester and synthetic rubber. Inside the balloon was a 177-foot-long horn-shaped antenna that weighed 380 tons.
Not a trace of it remains. But here in a tiny rural town, nestled in a valley that provided natural shielding from radio interference, a revolution was born 50 years ago Tuesday.
That revolution doesn't seem remarkable today. But a half-century ago, the notion of sending a television signal from North America to Europe shook the world.
A generation remembers the first transmitted image vividly -- a fuzzy shot of an American flag fluttering in a Maine village.
Millions more have been affected by the telecasts that have become unremarkable as a result of what happened here -- by the televised coverage of Olympic violence, royal weddings, airplane hijackings, the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi.
Settled in 1789, Andover for nearly two centuries was a tranquil outpost near the Canadian and New Hampshire borders, midway between Boston and Montreal but resolutely nowhere.
Until Telstar -- a 3-foot-diameter sphere weighing 170 pounds, with 1,064 transistors and 1,464 diodes -- was sent aloft by a Boeing Thor Delta booster that split the skies and opened the age of satellite communications. The iconic black-and-white image was so stunning a breakthrough that President John Kennedy predicted it would "throw open to us the vision of an era of international communications."
Now the future has left Andover behind, though Verizon Wireless still runs a satellite communications operation amid the white pine, elm and birch copse. A few abandoned foundations remain at the site, but no physical evidence hints that an era began here that rendered undersea cable and radio transmissions relics of a fast-receding past.
"No one incident in history has meant as much to the Town of Andover," the Rumford Falls Times wrote in 1962, "as has the decision of the American Telegraph and Telephone Co. to erect the satellite ground station in that town."
Telstar I operated for less than a year -- eventually its command decoders wouldn't accept instructions from Andover -- but it was followed by a second Telstar, 4 1/2 pounds heavier, positioned farther out in space, and better situated for communications with Asia.
But the telephone call between AT&T's chairman and Vice President Lyndon Johnson 15 hours after blastoff, followed by the shaky image of the flag, carved a new future in communications.
"Very-high-frequency radio and TV stations, which are limited to line-of-sight range, suddenly saw their future reach out beyond the horizon, around the curve of the Earth," Time magazine bellowed.
Today's communications-driven world was unimaginable in Telstar's time, but it would have been unattainable without it.
"Telstar opened up an area of activity that has transformed the world," says John Logsdon of George Washington University, perhaps the leading historian of the space program. "It has made instantaneous global communication possible. Before Telstar and what followed Telstar, you had to book ahead to make an international telephone call. Now we have Skype."
While Telstar was a precursor to dramatic breakthroughs in telecommunications, it also spawned an important cultural marker -- the Tornados' instrumental hit "Telstar," which remains familiar and irritating. It was the first single by a British group to reach No. 1 on both the American and British pop charts.
Like the satellite whose bleeps it was intended to imitate, the song paved the way for even greater cultural developments. The second single by a British group to achieve those ratings was called "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org