Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Seeing by Wireless

"A mighty maze of mystic rays is all about us in the blue." So sang Adele Dixon in the opening programme of the new BBC Television Service, launching exactly 80 years ago today.

The opening night was the culmination of years of experiment, test transmissions, disputes about the preferred system and, ultimately, good old British compromise. This was an early example of a format war - a precursor to the VHS versus Betamax argument four decades later.

The pre-history of television can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century with a number of discoveries and inventions: the electro-chemical effects of light, the photo-sensitive properties of selenium, scanning discs and cathode ray tubes. 

It was left to others to realise how these discoveries could lead to a television system: Boris Rising in Russia and A.A. Campbell-Swinton in England, but the technical limitations of the time meant they never progressed. Campbell-Swinton announced that his idea "could not be got to work without a great deal of experiment, and probably much modification."

On the scene comes Scottish engineer and inventor John Logie Baird  - the archetypal 'mad scientist' who also invents the glass safety razor and thermal undersocks - who starts to grapple with the mechanics of what he called a 'televisor'. In June 1923 he inserts a notice in The Times : "Seeing by Wireless - Inventor of apparatus wishes to hear from someone who will assist (not financially) in making working model." His first model was a Heath Robinson affair built from an old tea chest to form the base for a motor which rotated a circular cardboard disc cut out from an old hat box. A darning needle served as a spindle and biscuit box housed the projection lamp. The lenses he bought from a bicycle shop at a cost of fourpence.

Over the next six years Baird continued to experiment and modify his television equipment and gave numerous public demonstrations However, he was met with naysayers and sceptics including the Post Office and the BBC. A BBC memo of 1928 concluded that "the Baird apparatus not only does not deserve a public trail, but also has reached the limit of its development owing to the basic technical limitations of the method employed."

The BBC relented and gave into political pressure in 1929 and offered Baird's company out of hours transmission time when 2LO wasn't on air with 30-line experimental broadcasts starting on 30 September. Those first tentative steps were seen, Baird estimated, by no more than thirty 'lookers-in' - a set was owned by Baird himself, one each at the BBC and the Post Office, about half a dozen sets in the country and probably about twenty or so on apparatus built by clever amateurs. Technically the first broadcasts were primitive, no more than a waving silhouette and, due to only one transmitter being available, no synchronised sound.

Synchronised sound and vision was eventually achieved on 31 March 1930. The Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, had a set installed at number 10 The performers included Gracie Fields and playwright R.C. Sherriff who announced, with a degree of prescience, that "I am afraid if this invention becomes too perfect, it will cause most people to spend their evenings at home instead of visiting the theatre."

As the technology improved - early highlights included drama and coverage of the 1931 Derby - the BBC began to work more closely with Baird's company, installing television equipment in a studio at the new Broadcasting House. Interestingly the agreement included the clause that "we should be free to give transmissions by other Television methods, whether the Baird transmissions were continued or not." 

Meanwhile coming up on the rails was EMI with their swanky new Emitron cameras based on the new 'iconoscope' technology developed by Russian engineer V.K. Zworykin. EMI had first demonstrated their high-definition television to the BBC in late 1932 where it impressed them with its superior picture quality with three times as many lines per picture and twice as many pictures per second.  

Two competitive demonstrations were arranged in April 1933 with both the representatives of the Post Office and the Corporation agreeing that the EMI equipment was far in advance of Baird's. But the Postmaster-General demurred fearing a political backlash for any blame attached to "the inevitable bankruptcy of the Baird company". The issue wasn't really the provision of the television service but the considerable advantage it would give in the manufacture and sale of receivers.

Baird continued to provide test transmissions for the BBC whilst EMI was spending thousands developing its technology. Eventually, in the spring of 1934, someone concluded that the best way to decide which system to go with, and also to discuss how such a service would be funded, should be by a Public Committee. The House of Commons was told that committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Selsdon, was "to consider the development of television and to advise the Postmaster-General on the relative merits of the several systems and on the conditions under which any public service of television should be provided".

The Selsdon Committee's recommendations (reporting in January 1935) solved little. There was to be no increase in the licence fee nor an additional TV licence. There was to be a new public service from London. A Television Advisory Committee was to be established. No agreement had been reached with the manufacturers regarding their patents so there was to be further testing with Baird and Marconi-EMI (EMI had joined with Marconi in March 1934) under "strictly comparable conditions" with their systems used "alternately".

The BBC announced plans to base its television transmitting station at Alexandra Palace.  In the meantime the Baird 30-line tests ceased in September 1935 at the end of the previously agreed test period and there was a lull before the new service started.  

In November 1935 the BBC's newly appointed Director of Television, Gerald Cock, reported on the plans for the new service as featured in this edition of Popular Wireless magazine:

Ahead of the go-live date test broadcasts were arranged from Ally Pally to the Radiolympia Exhibition in August 1936. Cecil Madden was charged with planning the programmes and announcers Leslie Mitchell, Jasmine Blight and Elizabeth Cowell were on hand to guide viewers through what was on offer, a mixture of live performances and films such as the Queen Mary docking in Southampton and an Arsenal versus Everton football match.

During the interregnum between Radiolympia and the official launch some programmes went out to whoever happened to be watching. 8 October 1936, for instance, saw the first edition of Picture Page hosted by Canadian actress Joan Miller shown sitting at a switchboard supposedly plugging in the 'lookers' as they were still called. Picture Page would be TV's first popular hit running until 1939 and then again between 1946 and 1952.  

The new television service went on air at 3 pm on Monday 2 November 1936 with speeches on both systems (Baird first then Marconi-EMI) from the Postmaster-General, the Chairman of the BBC and Lord Selsdon. The chair of the Baird television Company, Sir Harry Greer and Marconi-EMI's chairman Alfred Clark were each televised by their own system. BBC Chairman R.C. Norman was spot on when he said: "We believe that these proceedings will be remembered in the future as an historic occasion, not less momentous and not less rich in promise than the day, almost fourteen years ago, when the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then, transmitted its first programme from Marconi House".

After an interval and a newsreel the day continued with variety with Adele Dixon and Buck and Bubbles and the newly formed BBC Television Orchestra. Adele Dixon was to feature later, when the evening broadcasts started, in the pre-filmed Television Comes to London complete with that oft-repeated clip of her carefully enunciating the lyrics "by the magic rays to light, that bring television to you." After Picture Page and another showing of a Movietone newsreel the historic day was over.

The launch of the television service 80 years ago is to be recreated tonight on BBC Four in Television's Opening Night: How The Box Was Born. "To find out just what went on, this 21st century team will attempt to piece back together and recreate every aspect of the show from scratch, from the variety acts to the cameras, using the original technology and filming techniques to capture the excitement of the day".

As to who won the battle of the formats, well that decision was made as early as December 1936 when Gerald Cock concluded that the BBC should make exclusive use of the Marconi-EMI system. The so-called 'London television standards' were set as 405-line pictures with 50 frames per second, making Baird's 240-line picture with 25 frames per second redundant. The official announcement was held off until February 1937 as the Post Office was still fearful of the monopoly that Marconi-EMI would enjoy unless adequate guarantees were forthcoming.

Recalling the life and work of John Logie Baird is this 1997 documentary Seeing by Wireless - the Life of John Logie Baird. Narrated by Joan Bakewell it features contributions from his son and daughter Malcolm Baird and Diana Richardson. We also hear first-hand from some of the engineers that worked with Baird: Ray Herbert , Philip Hobson and Paul Revely.

This programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Sunday 21 October 1997. 

You can read more about Baird and the early days of television on the Baird Television website
The BBC have just launched some additional pages about the Birth of TV on their History of the BBC webpages

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