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Archive Biographies: Arthur C. Clarke

Born in Minehead, Somerset, England, on 16 December 1917, Arthur Charles Clarke became addicted to science-fiction after buying his first copies of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories at Woolworth's, pursuing his interest through the works of authors H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Clarke began writing for his school magazine in his teens.

Later, in the wartime Royal Air Force, he was put in charge of a new radar blind-landing system and it was an RAF memo he wrote in 1945 about the future of communications - the possibility of using satellites - that led him to fame.

Clarke was also a former staff member at the IEE, the forerunner of the modern-day IET. 

Arthur C Clarke, taken in Sri Lanka 1995

Arthur C Clarke, taken in Sri Lanka 1995

In 1949 Arthur C Clarke joined the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), now the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), as assistant editor of the journal Physics Abstracts (which subsequently evolved into the INSPEC database), a posting which Clarke himself referred to as a "brief but happy period".

By the end of World War Two, an enormous backlog of abstracting work had to be tackled and Clarke was part of the team responsible for classifying and indexing everything published in the physical sciences. 

As Clarke said later, “I probably had a bird’s-eye view of research in physics unmatched by anyone else on Earth during this period since every important journal, in every language, passed across my desk.”

The IEE:

Clarke worked at the IEE from 1949 to 1950 and contributed the heading ‘Astronautics’ to the index system. In his spare time, Clarke started writing and his first book commission was for "Interplanetary Flight", a non-fiction work on space travel published in 1950. The book was well received and is credited as being the first written in English to set out the basic technical theory of spaceflight. The success of Interplanetary Flight led to Clarke embarking on a full-time writing career.

Clarke was the author of more than 100 books. He was also the co-author with Stanley Kubrick of Kubrick's film version of Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey", but he was regarded as far more than a science fiction writer. He was credited with the concept of communications satellites in 1945, decades before they became a reality. Geosynchronous orbits, which keep satellites in a fixed position relative to the ground, are called Clarke orbits.

Clarke won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1972, 1974 and 1979; the Hugo Award of the World Science Fiction Convention in 1974 and 1980, and in 1986 became Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He was awarded the CBE in 1989.

Some of his best-known books are "Childhood's End" (1953); "The City and The Stars" (1956); "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1967); "Rendezvous with Rama" (1973); "Imperial Earth" (1975) and "The Songs of Distant Earth" (1986).

Clarke had battled debilitating post-polio syndrome since the 1960s and sometimes used a wheelchair. He moved to Sri Lanka in 1956, lured by his interest in marine diving which he said was as close as he could get to the weightless feeling of space. "I'm perfectly operational underwater," he once said.

Sri Lanka visit:

Rarely leaving his Sri Lankan home, Clarke was linked by his computer with friends and fans around the world, spending each morning answering e-mails and browsing the Internet. Over the years Clarke maintained his connections with the IEE. In 1995 - whilst employed by the IEE on a British Council-funded visit - John Coupland, the IET’s Librarian, visited Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka. Across the years, several IEE Presidents also visited Clarke, maintaining the link between Clarke and the Institution.

Clarke's fame was due in part to his engaging personality and his ability to articulate a holistic overview of where science was leading mankind - and vice versa. During interviews conducted with Piers Bizony - E+T's space correspondent and author of the award-winning book "2001: Filming the Future" - Clarke was by turns typically insightful and self-effacing. 

On his initial fame, Clarke noted that "Today, people call me the Father of Communications Satellites, but that's not fair. I only thought up the idea. It took other, incredibly talented people to turn it into reality. Just call me the Godfather."

Looking to the future:

In keeping with his reputation as a science fiction visionary, Clarke continued to look to the future, declaring that, "The time of super-intelligent machines is fast approaching. I hope that when they arrive - these children of our brains - they will treat us as pets and not exterminate us as vermin. Even if we deserve it."

However, he remained "an optimist", reasoning that mankind had "a 51 per cent chance of survival". He concluded by saying, "Our only hope for a better future lies in science combined with wisdom and foresight. I shall be happy indeed if any writings of mine have helped towards this goal." 

"Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered," Clarke said recently. "I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these, I would like to be remembered as a writer."

Clarke died in March 2008, after suffering from breathing problems. British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore paid tribute to his friend, saying: "He was a great visionary, a brilliant science fiction writer and a great forecaster. He foresaw communications satellites, a nationwide network of computers, interplanetary travel, he said there would be a man on the moon by 1970 - while I said 1980 - and he was right."