Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws of Innovation

Posted on | July 1, 2012 | No Comments

During World War II, Arther C. Clarke was an electronics engineer in a top-secret radar installation outside London. It was a scary time when German V-1 and V-2 rockets were reigning terror on England. The experience did give him some time to experiment with radio waves and think about the future of technological innovation. This, of course, is the same Arther C. Clarke who went on to become a famous science fiction writer and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke made his mark first in non-fiction when he published a seminal article on the possibilities of satellites in the 1945 edition of a British journal, Wireless World[1]. He conceived the idea of putting satellites, what he initially called “rocket stations,” in orbit around the world to act as radio relays providing global communications. He proposed that three satellites placed an orbit high enough above the earth could blanket the Earth with radio broadcasts. He reasoned that a satellite circling the Earth at about 6,870 miles per hour and placed 22,300 miles above the equator would maintain pace with the revolving earth below and provide a stationary target for bouncing radio waves back to the earth. This “geostationary orbit,” often known as the Clarke Belt,” provided the basic science and rationale for the future of communications satellites.


As Clarke became famous, he reflected on the processes of predicting change and prophesying the future. In the early 1960s, he proposed some ideas about thinking about innovation with his three laws (not to be confused with Asimov’s three laws of robotics).

In an essay entitled “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, he proposed his first law:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

(OK, he didn’t get gender equality back then. but he his noted for his quote, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m interested in her” quote).

With encouragement from colleagues and readers he soon developed a second law which he had hinted at in his essay:

2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

One of his ideas was the space elevator that would replace rocketing stuff into space. This idea is being actively researched, and the science has been largely developed.

And surrendering to the notion of three laws such as Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, he suggested his most famous:

3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Could one even imagine the possibility of a satellite communications, say during the Civil War, about a 100 years before Clarke’s vision was achieved?


[1] Arthur C. Clarke, October 1945 “Extraterrestial Relays,” Wireless World.
[2] Clarke’s Law, later Clarke’s First Law, can be found in the essay
“Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, in the collection
Profiles of the Future, 1962, revised 1973, Harper & Row.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global e-commerce. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


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