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Cellular Networking Perspectives

Reveals How Iridium Got Its Name

Most people know by now that the Iridium satellite system was named because it was originally planned to have 77 satellites, which is the Atomic Number of the element Iridium. As an aside, the current configuration contains only 66 satellites, but somehow it is doubtful that Dysprosium will ever be used as a marketing name! Although, given the financial troubles of this company, perhaps the name would not have made a lot of difference.

What is less known is who came up with the name. We have confirmed that this person was Jim Williams, one-time Motorola representative to TIA subcommittee TR-45.2, also known within Motorola CIG (Cellular Infrastructure Group) as the ‘official namer’. According to Jim, “It occurred to me that my mental image of the system resembled a model of an atom with electrons orbiting a nucleus so I looked up the element with 77 electrons which turned out to be Iridium.”

Jim Williams’ full story follows (references to the Brooklyn Bridge are an inside joke, that may be explained later)…


by Jim Williams

The guys who originated the Iridium concept were Barry Bertiger (now the General Manager of the Motorola Satellite Communications Group), Ray Leopold (Vice-President and Chief Technical Officer of SCG) and Ken Petersen (currently with the Teledesic project). They were with the Motorola Government Electronics Group then, and the system was originally to be for the military. The senior Motorola management at that time decided that there would be more impact (and profit) from a commercial implementation, so the team began touring through Motorola to see if some other product group would be interested in helping them out. Eventually they arrived at CIG, the Cellular Infrastructure Group (late 80’s, I think) and I was one of the people involved in discussing their ideas with them.

After their initial presentation in Chicago, we realized that this was much more than just another scheme to use satellites to backhaul traffic between cell sites and cellular switches. It was more like 77 EMX-2500s [Motorola Cellular Switches] orbiting the Earth, each supporting more than a thousand voice channels, all interconnected with each other, and with multiple land-based switches for interfacing to the PSTN around the world. I had always been inclined to wrestle with new system ideas – architectures, protocols, features, etc. – and I usually liked to give any new idea some kind of name rather than just “that satellite system” or “that scheme for handing off the Brooklyn Bridge”. My boss used to kid me that I was the “official namer” for CIG. He suggested that I propose a name for the system. It occurred to me that my mental image of the system resembled the model of an atom with electrons orbiting a nucleus so I looked up the element with 77 electrons which turned out to be Iridium.

I went to Chandler, Arizona to get a little more involved in some of the details. We spent several days discussing the seemingly endless list of fascinating technical problems requiring solution – the constellation and how it would be established and maintained; the satellites themselves (their weight and cost); launch systems; up-links, down-links and cross-links; the “air interface” links and their power levels, fade margin and protocol; subscriber units and their size, antenna systems, cost, etc.; handing off from one satellite traveling at nearly 17,000 mph [27,000 km/h] to another, not only of active subscribers but also of fixed earth stations (but not the Brooklyn Bridge); how to acquire necessary spectrum in virtually every country on Earth; numbering plans and dialing plans; call processing for mobile-to-land, land-to-mobile and mobile-to-mobile calls; “gateway” switching systems and inter-switch connections and protocols for roaming, billing, features, etc. – just a few little details. Toward the end of the last day, Ray Leopold asked if there was anything else anyone wanted to bring up. I mentioned that I thought the system should have a name and made my proposal, explaining the rationale. Everyone liked it and the name Iridium was adopted.

A few weeks later there was another meeting in Chicago. I was chatting with Ray and he asked me if I had received any compensation for coming up with the name (sort of like a patent award). I said that I hadn't and he pulled out his wallet and handed me a dollar. That's how I became the first person to make a profit out of Iridium (still true to this day, but hopefully not for much longer). The “Iridium Dollar” now hangs in a frame on my den wall.

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© – Copyright Mon, May 14, 2007: Cellular Networking Perspectives Ltd.