Arthur Charles Clarke

No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.” HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s 3rd Law as stated in Profiles of the Future (1962, Arthur C. Clarke)

Arthur C. Clarke was an English science fiction writer and futurologist exploring space and the near and distant future, a visionary who championed technological progress. He is forever remembered for the famous 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and his 1980 television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Page from GB prestige booklet “World of Invention” (2007) honouring Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur Charles Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead, a small coastal town in Somerset, England. His father, Charles Wright Clarke, was a farmer while his mother Nora was a telegrapher at the local post office. When his father passed away in 1931, his mother had to give riding lessons to supplement the income for herself and her four children, of which Arthur was the eldest. Clarke showed an early interest in science and while attending Huish’s Grammar School in Taunton, Somerset, he discovered pulp magazine Amazing Stories at age 12 and started to write his own “fantastic” stories which were published in his local school’s magazine. Through lack of finances he was unable to go to university and in 1936 he moved to London where he became a civil servant as auditor in the pensions department of the Board of Education. He kept up his interest in science and space and joined the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) – an association of sci-fi enthusiasts – where he wrote articles for its BIS Bulletin. In 1937 he started writing his first sci-fi novel, which was later published as Against the Fall of Nights (1953).

World War Two

When World War II erupted in 1939, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and was involved in Britain’s early warning radar defense system. Eventually he rose to the rank of flight-lieutenant and was in charge of the experimental trials of the first radar-controlled system for landing aircraft during bad weather. Clarke’s work on Ground Controlled Approach radar would serve later as the basis for his only non-sci-fi and semi-autobiographical novel Glide Path (1963).

Geostationary satellites

Shortly after the war Clarke wrote his “Extra-terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” (October 1945) in which he proposed the use of geostationary satellites for communication purposes. Although he was not the first scientist to launch this idea – that honor went to Herman Potočnik in 1928 – it was Clarke who popularized the concept for the public at large. [Geostationary satellites appear to be fixed over one spot above the equator, i.e. they circumnavigate the earth in 24 hours and thus are stationary relative to the Earth’s surface.] It was a visionary article as the first satellite – Sputnik – was only launched in 1957 and the first geostationary satellite – Syncom 3 – was launched in 1964, nearly twenty years after Clarke’s writing. The geostationary orbit at 36,000 km above the equator has been named the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union in his honor.

Clarke was still involved with the BIS and had become its chairman in 1946. After the war Clarke entered King’s College, London, for his B.Sc. from which he graduated in 1948 with honors in physics and mathematics. After graduation he joined the staff of the Institution of Electrical Engineers to become the assistant editor of its magazine Physics Abstracts but he soon decided to support himself as a full-time independent freelance writer. His first published novel – Prelude to Space – was written in 1947 and published in 1951, This was followed by The Sands of Mars later that same year. His 1951 Exploration of Space was selected by the United States’ Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1953 he published Expedition to Earth, a collection of short stories, one of them being his 1948 tale The Sentinel which would later form the basis for the film and novel that would make him famous – “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Sri Lanka

In the fifties Clarke became interested in underwater exploration and scuba diving. “I suddenly realized that here was a cheap and simple way of imitating one of the most magical aspects of spaceflight - weightlessness.” In order to more enjoy his newfound interest he relocated to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1956 where he settled in Colombo. He lived there until his death in 2008, even obtaining Sri Lankan citizenship. Here he wrote The Fountains of Paradise in which he introduced space elevators to facilitate traffic between earth and space stations. His Profiles of the Future was published in 1962 and contained many predictions on space and space travel.

2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1964 Clarke met film-director Stanley Kubrick and the two discussed a collaborative project for a sci-fi film. It would be based on Clarke’s earlier story The Sentinel. It was agreed that both the screenplay and the novel would be written simultaneously with feedback in both directions. It resulted in his most famous work 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story is about a group of scientists who are on a mission to Jupiter after having found a buried monolith on the moon which apparently came from Jupiter. The spaceship is controlled by an artificially intelligent supercomputer – HAL 9000. HAL’s name is made up of the letters in the alphabet immediately preceding the letters of IBM.

Despite calling himself incapable of error or failure, HAL started to malfunction and began to eliminate the crew. In the end the only surviving crew member managed to disconnect HAL’s memory chips and shut down the misbehaving computer.

The film was an immediate international success and received a string of international accolades, including an Oscar for best visual effects in 1969. Arthur C. Clarke became a household name and when space travel became a reality, he became a commentator for CBS during the moon missions Apollo 11 and 12 (1969) and Apollo 15 (1971). Like no other he managed to explain outer space travel and its concomitant technology to the layman public. In 1980 he presented the immensely popular television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Post 2001

In 1982, Clarke wrote the 2001 sequel – 2010: Odyssey Two. The resultant film, in which Clarke played a small cameo role, was directed by Peter Hyams. Clarke, at his home in Sri Lanka, communicated with Hyams, in California, on a daily basis through two Kaypro 2 computers, a set of modems and communications software. This early form of electronic mail correspondence between Clarke and Hyams across two continents resulted in his 1984 publication The Odyssey File: The Making of 2010. Clarke has written two further sequels to the saga, but these have not been adapted to the big screen – 2061: Odyssey Three (written in 1988) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1996).

Clarke continued to write prolifically. He has published many books on his interest in underwater sea life both at Sri Lanka and about the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from books about outer space he also wrote many children stories. In 1989 he published his memoirs Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography. He continued to make startling predictions which not always came true. In 1999 he penned The Twenty-First Century: A (Very) Brief History in which he predicted that the last coal mine would close in 2006, that 2009 would see the accidental destruction of a third world country by an A-bomb explosion and that 2014 would see the start of the construction in space of the Hilton Orbiter Hotel.

In 1962 Clarke had suffered a severe attack of poliomyelitis. Although he recovered completely, in 1988 he was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome and was confined to a wheelchair. Despite this severe limitation in mobility it did not stop him from continuing his prolific writing for which he, obviously, used a computer.

Following a cardio-respiratory attack, Arthur C. Clarke died on March 19, 2008, at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at age 90. He was buried there three days later in a traditional Sri Lankan ceremony attended by thousands. In his obituary, the New Scientist wrote: “With the death of Sir Arthur C. Clarke we have lost one of the last original visionaries of the Space Age, and one of its most eloquent dreamers.”

Arthur C. Clarke honoured

Besides having the geostationary orbit named after him, over the years Clarke has been honored in many ways:
1961 – UNESCO awarded him the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science.
1970 – NASA launched its Apollo 13 mission, its command module named Odyssey after Clarke’s famous 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the famous “Houston, we’ve had a problem” mission.
1982 – awarded the Marconi International Fellowship.
1986 – Science Fiction Writers of America named him a Grand Master.
1989 – Queen Elizabeth II appointed him Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for “services to British cultural interest in Sri Lanka.”
1989 – appointed First Chancellor of the International Space University, serving until 2004.
2000 – Arthur C. Clarke was knighted and became Sir Arthur.
2001 – NASA named its Mars orbiter spacecraft the Mars Odyssey.
2004 – received the Heinlein Award for outstanding achievement in science-oriented science fiction.
2005 – Sri Lanka awarded him its highest civilian award, the Sri Lankabhimanya (The Pride of Sri Lanka) for his commitment to his adopted country and for his contributions to science and technology.

A 10km-diameter asteroid which was discovered in 1981 has been named 4923 Clarke,
the number 2001 being unavailable as this had been assigned previously to Albert Einstein.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2009

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