Belonging to AT&T, the original Telstar was part of a multi-national agreement between AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British Post Office, and the French National PTT (Post & Telecom Office) to develop satellite communication. It was launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, the first privately sponsored space launch. Telstar was placed in an elliptical orbit (completed once every 2 hours and 37 minutes), rotating at a 45 degree angle above the equator. Because of this, its transmission avaliability for transatlantic signals was only 20 minutes in each orbit.
Telstar relayed its first television pictures (of a flag outside its ground station in Andover, Maine) on the date of its launch. Almost two weeks later, on July 23, it relayed the first live transatlantic television signal. During that evening it also dealt with the first telephone call transmitted through space and successfully transmitted faxes, data, and both live and taped television, including the first live transmission of television across an ocean (to Pleumeur-Bodou, in France). John F. Kennedy, then President of the United States, gave a live transatlantic press conference via Telstar.
The satellite was built by a team at Bell Telephone Laboratories. It was roughly spherical, was 34 1/2 inches long, and weighed 170 pounds; its dimensions were limited by what would fit in one of NASA's Delta rockets. Telstar would receive microwave signals from a ground station, amplify them, and rebroadcast them. The team calculated the orbital path and located the US ground station accordingly in the US State of Maine.
The original Telstar was just an experiment, however. It went out of service on February 21, 1963. Experiments continued, and by 1964, two Telstars, two Relays (from RCA), and two Syncoms (from the Hughes Aircraft Company) had operated successfully in space. Syncom 2 was the first geosynchronous satellite and its successor, Syncom 3, broadcast pictures from the 1964 Olympics. The first commercial geostationary satellite was Intelsat 1 ("Early Bird") launched in 1965.
Joe Meek composed a popular instrumental recording in 1962, named Telstar after the satellite; it was performed by the Tornados. Sound effects on the record, intended to symbolize radio signals, were produced by Meek running a pen around the rim of an ashtray, and then playing the tape of it in reverse.