1932 Television Demonstrated in 1952

by Iain Logie Baird, 11 March 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. Regular television broadcasts on the original 'low-definition' Baird standard had been made from 1929 until 1935 using the BBC's existing medium-wave radio transmitters. By late 1930, programmes were broadcast from Monday to Friday from 11.00 to 11.30 in the morning, in addition to thirty minutes at midnight on Tuesdays and Fridays (after BBC radio went off the air). The limited bandwidth of the medium-wave radio 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) with the sound on 398.9 metres (Midland Regional).1 The studio the BBC used for low definition television was BB1, located in the basement of Broadcasting House. In February 1934, television production was relocated to larger premises nearby, at 16 Portland Place. The BBC used the same specially-built flying spot projector for virtually all of these television broadcasts until the closure of the service in Autumn 1935. Amazingly, the original studio projector (photograph below) was still in excellent working condition in 1952, twenty years after its construction.

On 28 April 1952, a 'Convention on the British Contribution to Television' was held at the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Place in London.2,3 This prestigious event combined with a television documentary programme called 'An American Looks at Science in Britain' to bring into the open some important artifacts. They included the original projector above, and two compatible Baird mirror-drum television receivers of similar vintage. A demonstration of this equipment in operation was performed in the IEE lecture theatre, led by Thornton 'Tony' H. Bridgewater (1908–1997). Bridgewater was 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 took over programme production. When that service closed down, he stayed on to become chief engineer at the BBC in charge of television.

The 'An American Looks at Science in Britain' series was first aired on BBC television. Brian David Williams, who kept a diary religiously for decades (and in recent years has shared the diaries 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

This programme was presented by 41-year-old American scientific broadcaster Lynn Poole (1910–1969) who was producer, co-writer, and host of the The Johns Hopkins Science Review television series (aired on WMAR TV, Baltimore Maryland, CBS from 1948–1950, subsequently WAAM TV, Baltimore Maryland, DuMont Network from 1950–1955). He was also the public relations director of Johns Hopkins University. Launched on 8 March 1948, The Johns Hopkins Science Review was the first American television series to ‘latch onto science as a real story and not a ruse for monsters and aliens’, as Lucanio and Colville observe.6 The 30-minute programme was usually produced right on the campus of the University where it had access to a large number of eminent scientists of the day from a wide range of disciplines.

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.7

The three programmes in the 'An American Looks at Science in England' 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 brief mention of American inventors like Vladimir Zworykin of RCA and an obligatory mention of Allen B. DuMont as a central inventor of television (Poole's programme at this time aired on the DuMont network), then a short discussion of 'Dr.' John Logie Baird, before going into the live demonstration of the Baird-BBC 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 holding the first-ever EMI-built camera pickup tube (1932) and also the similarly experimental (yet larger and more sophisticated) Iconoscope camera pickup tube that had been left behind at EMI by Zworkyin in 1931.

Then follows 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', continuing in the spirit of the earlier section of the programme that was introduced by Sylvia Peters. There is a brief segment of Television Comes to London (1936) film footage depicting the high definition 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'.

The Baird-BBC scanner innards

Flying spot scanning using an arc lamp and a 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 boxes on tall 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 projector itself, at least two of the BBC's original photoelectric cell arrays had survived well after the War, entirely intact and functional.

Incidentally, the person being televised is Axel G. Jensen—an attendee of the Convention—the Director of Television Research at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, who 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'.8,9 A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, he immigrated to the United States in 1921, initially working for Western Electric. From 1926 until 1931, he spent time in London working on the development of transatlantic short wave radiotelephone service. It is tempting to speculate whether he may have somehow contributed to their demonstration of long-distance two-way television from Washington D.C. to New York in April 1927 that marked the end of Baird's monopoly of the medium. In July 1935, Jensen had been one of three Bell executives for whom a demonstration of Bell Labs' practical photoconductive TV camera tube was given.10 By 1952, he was involved in helping to establish NTSC colour as the standard for American colour television. He retired from Bell Telephone in 1958 as Director of Visual and Acoustics Research.11

From Television (December 1935), p. 709.

As soon as the low definition broadcasts ended in late 1935, it was rumoured that the scanner/projector and its associated equipment would be donated by Baird Television Limited to the Science Museum at South Kensington. This seems to have been only a rumour. In fact, it remained in the possession of the Baird Company and eventually became the property of Cinema-Television Ltd. (which was the Baird company that was able to carry on when Baird Television Limited was forced into receivership due to the 1939 shut down of television broadcasting). According to a very short piece in the 1952 issue of the Journal of the Royal Television Society, at this time the equipment had been lent to Norwood Technical College (yet still officially owned by Cinema-Television).12 The same article suggested that Mr. Jensen had been the last person to be broadcast by 30 line television.

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 dates back to the spring of 1932. A mirror drum inside rear-projected a rectangular picture 14 in. high by 6 in. wide onto its ground glass screen.13 Only six sets like it were made, some having different outer cabinet designs. One or two of the six were provided to the BBC for use at Broadcasting House. These were limited edition production sets sold to customers, not experimental prototypes. Baird wrote of these in 1932:

In the new model machine ... a projection lamp whose beam of light is now modulated by being passed through Nicol prisms and a glass cell filled with nitro-benzene, in which plates, similarly arranged to accumulator plates, are immersed. These plates are connected to the output of the wireless receiver, and as the voltage varies, the light passed by the cell varies in unison. This grid cell is a modification of the cell used many years ago by the physicist Kerr in his experiments with polarised light, but the use of grids in place of simple plates enables a low voltage to be employed and renders the device practical. The beam of light modulated by the grid cell is projected on to a revolving mirror drum, and this in turn is reflected on to a translucent screen positioned in front of the drum.14

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

The Televisor that is demonstrated in the programme is a later production model based on the same principles. Its prototype was demonstrated to the press in late Summer 1932 at 133 Long Acre, coinciding with the BBC's takeover of programme-making for 30 line television. The production models were then designed and built by the Baird company in collaboration with Bush Radio, constructed at the latter's factory on Woodger Road, Shepherd's Bush during the first half of 1933.

Inside the cabinet on its top level is a mirror drum scanner which projects the image onto a ground glass screen that pulls out from the cabinet giving a picture 9 in. high by 4 in. wide (see diagram above). In the cabinet below is a radio receiver for receiving the vision signal, a four stage amplifier and a loudspeaker for connecting to a separate radio receiver. It can briefly be seen in the video above that Bridgewater has positioned the two Televisors side-by-side in an arrangement faithful to the BBC television studio in 1934, in which pictures were monitored using two mirror drum consoles—one showing the direct picture from the studio amplifiers and the other showing a picture as received by radio.15

A modest one-hundred of the 1933 Bush production models were made at a total cost of £5,000 to Baird Television Ltd., in identical well-crafted and quite beautful art deco cabinets, with a plan for these to then be sold for £75 each. Unfortunately, by mid-1933 there were also threats of closure of the BBC television service on 31 March 1934.16 Following heated discussions between Baird Television Ltd. and the higher-ups at the BBC, it was decided that the deluxe Bush sets could not legally be sold. Only two (perhaps three) of them survive today, including the actual set demonstrated in the telerecording.17 Most were quietly yet tragically culled en masse after they were deemed unsaleable—one of the darkest days at Baird Television Ltd.

Despite the threat of a shut down of the BBC's 'low-definition' television service (less than a year after it had started), broadcasts continued on a regular basis until 11 September 1935. Toward the end, broadcasts were reduced to only two per week. Thousands of enthusiasts continued to look in, having already purchased or built the earlier 'tin box' type Nipkow disc televisors or their equivalent as far back as 1928. Nor did mirror drums disappear from the British electronics and radio amateur markets (as numerous period advertisements indicate).

Getting back to 'An American Looks at Science in Britain', the television episode was the first programme in this ambitious three-part series. All three episodes 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.18,19,20 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.21

The programmes were broadcast about two to three weeks later in the United States than they were in Britain, eventually reaching twenty-three cities. 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.22 As kinescopes, there are also likely to have been some reruns in America in the years to follow.

Today, just over 300 of the more than 500 episodes of The Johns Hopkins Science Review that aired have survived as kinescopes.23 They are archived at Johns Hopkins University in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library's Special Collections department, and some are viewable online. It is fortunate for us in Britain that this particular recording is among the survivors—for those with interests in the technology underpinning the BBC's first 'experimental' television service, the development of all-electronic television systems, and the early years of the BBC's high definition service from Alexandra Palace.

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 'Proceedings at the Convention on the British Contribution to Television', Proceedings of the IEE, Part IIIA: Television (1952), 99(17), pp. 1–4. doi: 10.1049/pi-3a.1952.0001

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 Patrick Lucanio and Gary Colville, Smokin' Rockets: The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio, and Television, 1945–1962, Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2002, p. 108. [The Johns Hopkins Science Review is discussed in depth pp. 108–114.]

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

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

9 'Axel G. Jensen, Led Bell TV Research', New York Times (13 December 1972), p. 38.

10 Foster C. Nix, 'Photoconducting TV Transmitter', Bell Labs 22089 (6 August 1935), referenced in Albert Abramson, Zworkyin, Pioneer of Television, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995, p. 144. Abramson remarks that the photoconductive tube was well ahead of its time as such technology did not come into use until the late 1940s in the form of RCA's Vidicon. In 1935, Bell Labs also had a successful Iconoscope of their own design.

11 'Obituaries: Axel G. Jensen', Journal of the SMPTE (March 1973) 82, p. 240.

12 'THE LAST 30-LINER?' Journal of the Royal Television Society (1952), p. 380.

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

14 J.L. Baird, 'Television in 1932', BBC Annual Report, 1933.

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

16 'Television Agreement: A Formal Move', The Guardian (29 September 1933).

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

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

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

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

21 'Other News', p. 9.

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

23 Brennen Jensen, 'Mr. Science Television and the Hopkins show ahead of its time', Johns Hopkins Magazine (Spring 2019). https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2019/spring/johns-hopkins-science-review-lynn-poole/ [accessed 11 March 2021]


I am very grateful to Malcolm Baird, and Jeremy Jago of the Narrow-bandwidth Television Association for their suggestions, including providing key details concerning the ownership of the Baird-BBC studio equipment in 1952.