In 1960, Courier satellite had a way with words

Proof of concept: Courier took dictation at a rate of about 68,000 words per minute, as the U.S. Army Signal Corps continued a streak of aerospace-related advances.

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A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
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U.S. Army Signal Corps satellites
Courier is the top-center satellite in this vintage image. Also pictured are TIROS I, immediately to the left, and a pair of Vanguard satellites. U.S. Army

Sputnik may be the most famous satellite to have been launched on October 4--OK, so it's the most famous satellite, period--but it's not the only one. Three years to the day after the Soviet Union launched its little beeping orb and kicked the Space Race into high gear, the U.S. on October 4, 1960, lofted up a spherical satellite called Courier that turned out to be quite a wordsmith, or at least a stenographer.

"The Courier satellite," writes Rebecca Robbins Raines in "Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps," "could simultaneously transmit and receive approximately 68,000 words per minute while moving through space at 16,000 miles per hour, and could send and receive facsimile photographs."

Put another way, Courier could send or receive via teletypewriter the more than 773,000 words of the King James Bible in less than the 14 minutes that it was within range of one of its ground stations, according to a separate historical account by the U.S. Army--the Courier program was run by the Army's Signal Corps. All told, the 51-inch, 500-pound sphere handled roughly 6 million words per day via its four receivers and four transmitters, with the signals carried over UHF (ultra-high frequency) bands, apparently a first. Courier also helped demonstrate the feasibility of sending photographs to and from space, and it could handle voice transmissions as well. Onboard storage was handled by magnetic tape.

Oh, and it was solar-powered. The 19,200 solar cells on Courier's skin could generate 62 watts of electricity.

In the years before and just after NASA began operations (in 1958), and in the build-up to Dwight Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex (1961), the U.S. Army Signal Corps had an active hand in the early conquest of space--what with the initial emphasis on sending signals into and out of orbit. Earlier in 1960 (a banner year for satellite debuts), for instance, it worked with NASA on TIROS I, the Television and Infra Red Observation Satellite, which took a gander at cloud cover on Earth via a wide-angle TV camera (covering 800 square miles) and a more focused TV camera (which looked at 30-mile squares).

Neither satellite had much of a life span. Courier stopped sending signals after 17 days, and TIROS I petered out after about three months. (TIROS II, launched in November 1960, followed in its footsteps.)

This was just about the last hurrah for the Signal Corps' efforts in space as NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and other agencies took on a more and more prominent role. But it was no fluke--the Signal Corps in 1946, for instance, had bounced radar signals off the moon, and in 1909 the first official military airplane, a Wright Flyer, was dubbed Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.

For more from the 150-year history of the Signal Corps, take a tour through our slideshow:

Signal achievements in Army history (photos)

See all photos