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9781421424835
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v2.1 Reference

A Telephone for the World

Iridium, Motorola, and the Making of a Global Age

In June 1990, Motorola publicly announced an ambitious business venture called Iridium. The project’s signature feature was a constellation of 77 satellites in low-Earth orbit which served as the equivalent of cellular towers, connecting to mobile customers below using wireless hand-held phones. As one of the founding engineers noted, the constellation "bathed the planet in radiation," enabling a completely global communications system.

Focusing on the Iridium venture, this book explores the story of globalization at a crucial period in US and international history. As the Cold War waned, corporations and nations reoriented toward a new global order in which markets, neoliberal ideology, and the ideal of a borderless world predominated. As a planetary-scale technological system, the project became emblematic of this shift and of the role of the United States as geopolitical superpower. In its ambition, scope, challenges, and organizing ideas, the rise of Iridium provides telling insight into how this new global condition stimulated a re-thinking of corporate practices—on the factory floor, in culture and knowledge, and in international relations.

Combining oral history interviews with research in corporate records, Martin Collins opens up new angles on what global meant in the years just before and after the end of the Cold War. The first book to tell the story of Iridium in this context, A Telephone for the World is a fascinating look at how people, nations, and corporations across the world grappled in different ways with the meaning of a new historical era.

About the Author

Martin Collins is a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is the author of Cold War Laboratory: RAND, the Air Force, and the American State, 1945–1950.

Endorsementss

"An important and revealing book that expertly interacts with a range of fields and disciplines."

- James Schwoch, Northwestern University, coeditor of Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures

"A brilliant analysis of the practices of multiple stakeholders that constructed a global satellite communication system in the 1990s. Motorola engineers, the US government, and international organizations and investors—riding the neo-liberal wave of enthusiasm for deregulation, privatization, and individual autonomy—projected local aspirations onto a global screen depicting a market-driven, interconnected world without borders. Collins eloquently shows how their ambitions were subverted by utopian visions of a 'united nations of Iridium' that glossed over the capacities of indigenous actors to market expensive, underperforming cellphones in diverse cultural settings."

- John Krige, Georgia Institute of Technology, author of Sharing Knowledge, Shaping Europe: US Technological Collaboration and Nonproliferation

"A thoroughly engaging and thoughtfully critical analysis of a 1990s project to construct worldwide telephony, working at the edge of techno-scientific knowledge and capabilities. Fundamental reading for managers and engineers engaged in global technical projects, as well as for scholars and citizens seeking to understand the operational and cultural complexity of such efforts."

- Philip Scranton, Rutgers University, author of Reimagining Business History

"This provocative book brings together Martin Collins’s deep understanding of the history of technology and of the theoretical questions involved in analyzing globalization. Its case study of Motorola’s global satellite venture, Iridium, examines the enthusiastic visions of the post–Cold War era, the company’s stunning collapse in the late 1990s, and the system’s rebirth for mostly military uses after September 11. Throughout, Iridium serves as a rich lens through which to explore the varied impulses—and contradictions—that fashioned 'the global as a way of life.' Highly recommended!"

- Emily S. Rosenberg, University of California–Irvine, author of Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World: 1870–1945

"A Telephone for the World charts the entrepreneurial rise, precipitous collapse, and military resurrection of Iridium, the space-based communication system. In Martin Collins’s hands, the zealous implementation of a world-encompassing technology serves a powerful archaeology of present-day globality. Much more than a case study, this eagerly awaited work is histoire du temps présent at its very best. Masterly."

- Alexander C. T. Geppert, New York University, editor of Limiting Outer Space: Astroculture After Apollo

Reviews

"Collins examines the historical development of Motorola's Iridium global telecommunications project, which sought to provide cellular voice service to any point on Earth using a network of 77 low-orbiting satellites... Iridium's Apollo-like saga will capture the interest of general readers in engineering, science, history, sociology, and business, and will serve as an excellent capstone case study. Technical discussions are easy to understand, and the extensive endnotes and bibliography will satisfy the most rigorous scholar."

- R. Dupont, Louisiana State University Alexandria - Choice
Johns Hopkins University Press
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Hardback
280 Pages
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