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Getting to Know Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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Volumes of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society stored in the Adams Building book stacks.

March 19 will mark the 5 year anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur C. Clarke.  I would not be writing this blog post if it were not for the curiosity of one of our volunteers, Richard Halada, a local high school physics teacher. Richard was retrieving a book for us in the Adams’ Building stacks last week when a title caught his eye- the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS), which began publication in 1934. He just had to take a look inside, and what he discovered were papers by Arthur C. Clarke. He brought up his treasure trove and shared his bounty with me, and as soon as I saw the contents, I declared “I will write a blog post about Sir Arthur C. Clarke!”  I didn’t know at the time that the anniversary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s death would be this week. Do you think this was a mere coincidence or something from the great beyond?

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded by Phillip Cleator and other space flight enthusiasts in 1933.  Clarke joined the BIS in 1934 and was chairman (president) from 1946-1947 and again from 1951-1953.

Out of Clarke’s various authored works in JBIS, the early ones tended to be more about BIS business, such as technical committee reports. His later works reveal his scientific brilliance, for instance  Electronics and Spaceflight published in JBIS, v. 7, March 1948: 49-69. Rather than prattle on about the various works he published in JBIS, I will focus on one that provides insight into the vision and genius of Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

Arthur C. Clarke, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right. Photograph by Fabian Bachrach, [1954].
The Challenge of the Spaceship (Astronautics and its Impact upon Human Society) was published in JBIS December 1946, but was read to the Society on October 5, 1946. In this paper Clarke discussed how the BIS needed to help “make the world consider seriously the implications of interplanetary travel….that its advent is not an overwhelming mental shock, but something fully anticipated” (p.67).

This paper also provided his predictions as to when an important (astronautic) event should happen. He told the audience that a rocket would crash into the moon by 1950, and then in 20 years (1970’s) man will land on the moon. Man landed on the moon July 20, 1969, so he was on track with that prediction, and the rockets or spacecrafts to the moon came after 1950- the Soviet Union’s craft (Luna 2) landed (impacted) on the moon on Sept. 12, 1959 and the U.S. craft (Ranger 4) landed ( impacted) the moon on April 23, 1962.

He also said that the last quarter of the century- 1975- 2000- would be the age of space exploration and that we will have reached the major bodies of the solar system. I am not sure if Clarke meant ‘we’, figuratively or literally. People did not reach these major bodies, but satellites did- see a list of NASA Space Exploration Missions by Year for more information.

In this paper he also talked about the idea of stations that will circle the earth as refueling depots for spaceships, but thought that they might be better for meteorological observations of earth or even as a means to broadcast worldwide television. Many credit Clarke as one of the first to propose the idea of the communications satellite. He first published this idea in his article Extraterrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage, Wireless World, October 1945: 305-308. In it he writes “A true broadcast service, giving constant field strength at all times over the whole globe would be invaluable, not to say indispensable, in a world society.” He continued on to say that “Many may consider the solution proposed in this discussion too far-fetched to be taken seriously” (p.305).

Title page of Interplanetary Flight (Temple Press, London, 1950) by Arthur C. Clarke

The Library has all of Clarke’s published books, many of them first editions, as well as the revised editions. Naturally, I pulled from our book stacks a hefty pile of Clarke’s early works starting with his first published book Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (1950). From 1950-1959, Clarke was prolific in his writing and published 23 original titles (this does not include published individual short stories, articles, reissued compilations, or  revised editions). The topics ranged from astronautics to science fiction, as well as titles about the sea.  By the 1960’s his work continued to be revised and reissued. He still wrote about science and science fiction, but his focus was more about the sea. And in the mid 1960’s Clarke began working with Stanley Kubrick on the epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In my exploration of Clarke’s work I came across David Samuelson’s Arthur C. Clarke, a Primary and Secondary Bibliography (Boston, G.K. Hall, 1984). The hard work of bibliographers tends to often get ignored in this age of search engines and other electronic resources, but for librarians, bibliographies are invaluable when you need a looking glass into a topic or person’s work. For the Arthur C. Clarke scholars out there, this bibliography should be the centerpiece of your library. Samuelson’s bibliography contains a comprehensive list of works published by and about Clarke up until 1984, which was when Clarke announced his retirement. As we can tell from the published record, Clarke never really retired from writing after 1984. He continued to write and publish new material from time to time until near his death when he wrote The Last Theorem with Frederik Pohl (c2008).

A few of Arthur C. Clarke’s early books from the Library of Congress collection

The Library also holds other wonderful Clarkian treats and the following is just a small selection:

In the Library’s recorded sound collections we have Clarke reading a selection of his science fiction short stories:  Transit of Earth (first published in Playboy), The Nine Billion Names of God, & The Star. There is also a recording from WKCR in New York on May 7, 1970 of a discussion with Clarke, Alvin Toffler, and Margaret Mead titled 2001, Sci-fi or Man’s Future? and Arthur C. Clarke Reads From His 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My colleague in the Recorded Sound Reading Room pointed out that we have a 1961 recording of Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two). According to the National Recording Registry , “This recording, made at Bell Laboratories on an IBM 704 mainframe computer, is the earliest known recording of a computer-synthesized voice singing a song. The recording was created by John L. Kelly, Jr. and Carol Lochbaum, and featured musical accompaniment written by Max Mathews. Arthur C. Clarke, who witnessed a demonstration of the piece, was so impressed that he incorporated it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Clarke’s  fictional HAL 9000 computer is being involuntarily disconnected near the end of the story, as it devolves it sings Daisy Bell.”

In the Library’s moving images collection, I discovered that Clarke was a frequent guest of the CBS 1970’s series called Camera Three. Here is a selection from our collection:

Camera Three. The future isn’t what it used to be (1970). This episode features a conversation about the future with Clarke, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Alvin Toffler.

Camera three Arthur C. Clarke in Conversation (1971).  This episode features a conversation between Clarke and film critic Joseph Gelmis about the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Inscription from Arthur C. Clarke to Carl Sagan in The Coming of the Space Age edited by Arthur C. Clarke (1967). Carl Sagan Collection, Library of Congress.

For this blog post I sent an email to all LC reference staff inquiring if they knew of a one-of-a-kind Clarkian hidden gem in the Library’s collection. One of my colleagues shared with me a copy of The Coming of the Space Age (1967) edited by Clarke from Carl Sagan’s Library, which the Library acquired last year. In this book is an inscription to Sagan from Clarke.

There are more Clarkian works at the Library of Congress, which I will leave up to you to discover. I want to thank Richard for bringing the articles in JBIS to my attention, because without him I would never have gone on this fantastic journey getting to know all about Sir Arthur C. Clarke.


Comments (4)

  1. Jennifer,

    Thanks so much for putting a spotlight on Clarke’s work. It has inspired countless people and I count myself among them. I only wish I was in D.C. and could peruse the works and see the one of a kind items in person.

    This blog post served as a great substitute for the real thing. Time to go see what the local library system has available. Must get eyes on that bibliography. Thanks again!

  2. This is an “Amazing & Educational Piece!” It is something which I’m sure he was ridiculed for! How he was so capable of Writing about 9oncepts in the .I’d 1940’s & 1950’s which were then only seen in movie theaters or heard as radio shows considered as SCI-FY! All he wrote about then is now something considered the NORM! In Today’s World! I thank you for bringing his identity & his ideas to the Public! As well read & self educated on many subjects, I find there is still so much out there that even Scholars are noy aware of or even known about!! Continue to enligjten us! We will never stop learning; no matter our age & educational levels!!

  3. Really great article.

  4. All of Arthur’s early writings are referenced in “Arthur C. Clarke A Life Remembered” written by his brother Fred Clarke and others (including me). There are many rare items mentioned including his contributions as editor of the pre-war BULLETIN of the BIS, (not the same as the Journal) as well as his hilarious writings in Nova Terrae which he coedited as a prewar SF fanzine.

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