Listening to Space

When the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time in July it marked the end of an era.  But we’ll bet that not too many Fords know that a Haverford professor helped document the very beginning of that era, dubbed the Space Age, back in 1958.
In a recent blog post, a Smithsonian Institution archivist writes about digging up an unreleased 1958 Folkways record titled Voices of the Satellites! Along with the sounds of the radio signals of American and Soviet satellites, the album also records the heartbeat of Laika the dog, one of the first living creatures sent into space. That documentary recording, it turns out, was narrated by former Haverford Professor T.A. Benham.

The Smithsonian blog post doesn’t say much about Thomas Alonzo Benham, who died in 2006, but from what we can piece together, he was a thoroughly fascinating fellow.  A member of the Class of 1938, he taught at his alma mater for more than 30 years, beginning in 1941 in the Physics Department, then moving in 1964 to Engineering.  Benham was blind and lectured from notes in Braille.  He was a big influence on Joseph Taylor ’63, who would go on to become a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.  Under Benham’s guidance, Taylor built a radio telescope in a field on the edge of campus as his senior project.
According to a 1998 article in Smithsonian magazine, Benham founded an organization called Science for the Blind, which enlisted volunteers to read and record science articles, and in the 1970s, “he began creating products to help blind people in career and recreational pursuits.”
Equally fascinating, Benham apparently recorded many of the sounds heard on Voices of the Satellites! himself.  According to an account by a Swedish scientist who chronicles the history of the early space race in a blog, Benham used amateur radio equipment in his home to track Soviet and U.S. satellites.   He had his ear tuned to the first static-filled bleeps from space, well before the skies became crowded