1932 Television Demonstrated in 1952

by Iain Logie Baird, 24 February 2021

The beginning of British television broadcasting is usually presented as the 1936 television trials held at the Alexandra Palace in London, however, the 'high-definition' qualifier in the phrase 'the world's first regular high-definition television service' was there for a reason. Television technology improved remarkably from 1934 until 1936, both mechanically and electronically. It was during these transitional years that the established 30 line semi-experimental television service came to require its label as the 'low-definition' service. Regular television broadcasts on the original Baird standard had been made from 1929 until 1935, using BBC voice transmitters. The limited bandwidth of medium-wave voice transmitters ensured that picture resolution remained at only 30 lines. The future of television lay in ultra-short waves.

It was not until 22 August 1932 that the BBC reluctantly took over programme production from the Baird company. At this time, the vision signal was sent out on 261.3 metres (London National) and sound on 398.9 metres (Midland Regional).1 The BBC used the same specially-built (flying spot) mechanical scanner 'camera' for virtually all of their television broadcasts until the closure of the low-definition service. Amazingly, this scanner (pictured below) was still in excellent working condition in 1952, twenty years since its construction.

The mirror drum scanner as it looked installed in Broadcasting House in 1932

On 28 April 1952, the 'Convention on the British Contribution to Television' was held at the Insitution of Electrical Engineers, Savoy Place, London.2,3 This prestigious event combined with a documentary programme called 'An American Looks at Science in Britain' to bring into the open some important artifacts. These included the original BBC scanner (above), and two compatible Baird mirror-drum television receivers of similar vintage. A demonstration of this equipment was performed in the IEE lecture theatre, led by Thornton 'Tony' H. Bridgewater (1908–2011). Bridgewater had been one of the original three former Baird company engineers who had moved over to work in the new BBC television studio in August 1932 when the BBC had agreed to take over programme production. Bridgewater had stayed on to become a senior engineer at the BBC in charge of television.

The telerecording of 'An American Looks at Science in Britain' was first aired on BBC television. Brian David Williams, who kept a diary religiously for decades (and in recent years has shared this online), wrote in his entry for Wednesday 30 April 1952, 'We all watched Terry-Thomas in “How Do You View?” at 9.00 pm. It was a brilliant show again. After this there was a programme “An American Looks at Science in Britain” in which Lynn Poole traced the growth of TV in G.B. It was put together quite well and presented entertainingly enough'.4,5

41-year-old American scientific broadcaster Lynn Poole (1910–1969) was producer, co-writer, and host of the 'The Johns Hopkins Science Review' television series (CBS 1948–1950, WAAM TV, DuMont Network 1950–1955) and public relations director of Johns Hopkins University.

On arrival Poole [who was the guest of the BBC] was taken to the Royal Institute and the Royal Society in London, two of Britain’s scientific Institutions to meet the directors and discuss material to be shown on the program. Next day he was taken to Huddersfield, Yorkshire, to see the Holme Moss television transmitter, the top of which is 2500 feet above sea level. Poole was allowed to climb the mast and his ascent was filmed by a BBC Camera Unit. This sequence was to be shown on the first television program, which was to demonstrate the story of British Television before and after World War II.6

The three programmes in the series were introduced by the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Gifford. An attempt is made in this first programme to give an overview of the history of television technology in Britain, however, with limited time, this narrative begins with a mention of John Logie Baird and a few other inventors before going straight into the demonstration of the Baird mirror drum television equipment. The discussion then turns to cathode ray tubes, starting with the engineer A.A. Campbell-Swinton's theories of all-electronic television, followed by a brief appearance of senior EMI television engineer Dr. James D. McGee accompanied by the first EMI-built camera pickup tube (1932) and the Iconoscope camera pickup tube that had been left behind by RCA's foremost television engineer Vladimir Zworkyin in 1931.

Then begins a discussion that has been roughly described as 'how the world's first public television service, begun in 1936 at Alexandra Palace, has developed into that we know today'. There is a brief segment of Television Comes to London (1936) film footage depicting the Alexandra Palace television service launched that year, including the singer Adele Dixon and ballerina Margot Fonteyn, followed by the 1937 'televising the Coronation' film footage [George VI]. Next, Jasmine Bligh, one of the first Alexandra Palace television announcers, is interviewed (rather awkardly) by Poole. After this we see a model of what will become the BBC Television Centre. At the conclusion of the programme, Poole announces, 'this programme tonight is being transcribed on film, and tomorrow will be flown back to the United States where it will be shown to the viewers of the Johns Hopkins Science Review over the DuMont Network'.

Flying spot scanning using an arc lamp and mirror drum

Necessarily shown during Bridgewater's demonstration are the photoelectric cells that collect the light as it is reflected from the subject being scanned, instantaneously converting it into electrical impulses. These cells were mounted in black-painted stands that could be wheeled about the original studio at the BBC and thus easily positioned according to the director's needs. It is interesting to note that, like the flying spot scanner itself, at least two of the BBC's original wheeled photoelectric cell housings had survived well after the War, entirely intact and functional.

Incidentally, the person seated in front of the scanner is Axel G. Jensen—an attendee of the Convention—who was associated with the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, and that year had been involved in an extensive lecture tour in the United States and Europe describing 'the fundamentals of colour television transmission and the various systems which can be used to achieve it'.7

The internal components and light path of the 1933 Baird-Bush Televisor

The two mirror drum 'Televisor' receivers seen in the footage (resembling art deco grandfather clocks) are of different types. The larger one with sloping sides briefly visible at the beginning of the segment is a Baird prototype dating back to the spring of 1932. It used a mirror drum and a Baird Grid cell (an improved Kerr cell) to modulate the light from a projector bulb, rear-projecting a picture 14 in. high by 6 in. wide onto the back of a ground glass screen.8 Only six sets like this one were made, some with slightly diffrerent cabinets. The Televisor that is demonstrated by Bridgewater is the later production model based on the same idea, designed and built in collaboration with Bush radio during the first half of 1933. Inside, on its top level is a mirror drum chassis that projects the image onto its ground glass screen (see diagram above) giving a picture 9 in. high by 4 in. wide. In the lower level are two radio receivers, one for sound and one to receive the vision signal. The two sets side-by-side is reminiscent of the arrangement in the BBC television studio in 1934, where the pictures were monitored using two televisors, one showing the direct picture from the amplifiers and the other showing a picture as received by radio.9

One-hundred of the production models were made at a total cost of £5,000 to Baird Television Ltd., in well-crafted and quite beautful art deco cabinets, to be sold for £75 each. Unfortunately, by mid-1933 there was also a threat of closure of the BBC television service in 1934. Following heated discussions between Baird Television Ltd. and the 'higher-ups' at the BBC, it was decided that these sets could not legally be sold. Only two (perhaps three) of these Bush production models survive today, including the set demonstrated in the telerecording/kinescope above.10 The other ninety-seven or so were tragically culled en masse—one of the darkest days at Baird Television Ltd.

Despite the threat of a shut down of the BBC's 'low-definition' television service, the broadcasts in fact continued regularly until 11 September 1935. Thousands of enthusiasts continued 'looking in', having already purchased or built the traditional 'tin stove' type scanning disc televisors or their equivalent as far back as 1928. Nor did mirror drums entirely disappear from the electronics market (as numerous period advertisements indicate).

Getting back to 'An American Looks at Science in Britain', the television episode was the first of the three programmes in the series. All three are historic as the first-ever British television programmes to be telerecorded (kinescoped) and rebroadcast in the United States. Sadly, only the television episode and a compilation show entitled 'Highlights of Science from Abroad' are known to have survived. The second programme had concerned 'The Royal Society', the third: 'the jet engine and gas turbines', with Poole interviewing Sir Frank Whittle.11,12,13 The National Association of Educational Broadcasters newsletter (May 1952) provides more detail on the lost episodes:

The second program will be broadcast by remote control for the Royal Society and viewers will be shown treasures of science, and a demonstration by Professor Andrade, Director of the Royal Institution. Viewers will be taken into the laboratories, of famous British scientists, and on hand to greet them in person will be scientists such as Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin. This program was to be shown in America on May 19th. Poole was also scheduled to be taken on a flight of the COMET, the all-jet airplane, a companion craft to the one which was recently flown from London to Johannesburg. He will describe to viewers his reaction to this new mode of passenger flight.14

The programmes were broadcast about two to three weeks later in the United States than they were in Britain. YouTuber 'Free The Kinescopes!' gives one United States air date as 12 May 1952, however, in Philadelphia, and under a slightly different title: 'An American Looks at Science in England' episode one appears to have aired 18 May.15 As kinescopes, there were likely some reruns in America in the following years.

Today, for those with an interest in the BBC's first low-definition television service, it is very fortunate that this kinescope recording has survived the years.

1 BBC Genome, 'Television Transmission by the Baird Process', 23.00 Monday 22 August 1932, Radio Times, Southern edn. (19 August 1932) 36(464), p. 28, https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/150fa8ba20f54f7aac8ddf1eade8606f [accessed 24 February 2021]

2 G.R.M. Garratt and A.H. Mumford, 'The History of Television', Proceedings of the IEE, Part IIIA: Television (1952), 99(17), pp. 25–40. doi: 10.1049/pi-3a.1952.0005

3 'Discussion on "the History of Television" at the Convention on the British Contribution to Television, 28th April, 1952', Proceedings of the IEE, Part IIIA: Television (1952), 99(17), pp. 40–42. doi: 10.1049/pi-3a.1952.0006

4 Brian David Williams, '1947–1953 Diary of a Birmingham schoolboy', All the days of my life, https://brianwilliams.netlify.app/diary/1952-04.html [accessed 16 February 2021]

5 BBC Genome, 'An American Looks At Science in Britain: 1: Television', 21.30 Wednesday 30 April 1952, Radio Times, Television edn. (25 April 1952) 115(1485), p. 44, https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/21a4fc6957b74b72b68f6d8dbcec32df [accessed 16 February 2021]

6 'Other News of NAEB', N-A-E-B News-Letter (May 1952), p. 9.

7 'Awards' and 'David Sarnoff Gold Medal Award', Journal of the SMPTE (December 1952) 59, pp. 535–536, 539–540.

8 Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: a life, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing Limited, 2002, p. 229.

9 D.C. Birkinshaw, 'An Official and Exclusive Description', Television (April, 1934) 7(74), p. 143.

10 Today this particular set is missing its loudspeaker and possibly other internal parts.

11 'He plans to climb 750ft. TV mast', Bradford Observer (25 April 1952), p. 5.

12 'U.S. Broadcaster Climbs TV mast', Bradford Observer (26 April 1952), p. 5.

13 'Television', Coventry Evening Telegraph (4 June 1952), p. 2.

14 'Other News', p. 9.

15 'Philadelphia Television Programs for the Coming Week', The Philadelphia Inquirer (Sunday, May 18, 1952), p. 102.