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Crystal Palace Television Studios

John Logie Baird and British Television

By Ray Herbert

Between 1933 and 1936 the most extensive television complex in Europe was located beneath the main concourse at the Crystal Palace in London, a fact even then unknown to most people. The instigator was John Logie Baird, and his company could claim with justification that no other organisation had the capability of providing from a single site live, high definition television broadcast transmitters, receivers, cathode ray tubes, microwave relay systems, photocells, magnetrons and telecine equipment.

The existence of a fully-equipped television broadcasting station in the Crystal Palace, which could act at any moment, was the great surprise which Mr J.L. Baird sprang on the radio world yesterday. It was known, of course, that the Baird Company used the South Tower for experimental transmission but no one suspected that 40,000 sq. ft. of this building had been converted into a complete Television Broadcasting Station...

News Chronicle, Saturday, 2 February 1935

The Studios at Crystal Palace

So little is known regarding the existence of television studios at the Crystal Palace that photographs taken there are sometimes attributed to Alexandra Palace. This is surprising as the Baird Company could claim with justification that their laboratory and studio complex beneath the main concourse of Sir Joseph Paxton's massive glass edifice in south London was the most extensive in Europe. J.L. (John Logie) Baird made an early start with the new medium of television. Already in April 1925 he held a demonstration for the public at Selfridges in London. In July 1933 his company moved to the Crystal Palace, occupying 40,000 sq. ft. of space under the south transept and adjoining the tunnel which connected the two distinctive towers designed, incidentally, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Baird demonstrating television at Selfridges, April 1925 Baird's first demonstration for the public was held at Selfridges in London, April 1925.

At Crystal Palace Baird's company had three sizable studios, comprehensively equipped and acoustically isolated. The largest measured 60 ft. by 40 ft. and could accommodate full scale productions involving up to forty actors. A smaller studio employing a flying-spot disc scanner dealt with close-ups of single performers or announcers. Other facilities included telecine equipment, dressing rooms, generating plant, workshops, offices, sound and vision radio transmitters and laboratories. From the beginning of 1934 until mid-1935 the system operated 180 lines, considered at the time to be high definition An artist's sketch depicting the television studios at the Crystal Palace.(pre-war British Standard BS205 stated that this description applied to definition in excess of 100 lines).

An artist's sketch depicting the television studios at the Crystal Palace around December, 1934. Click on the picture for a larger view

Reaching the public

The Baird Company lost no time in getting the message across that they would soon be in a position to provide a public service. Demonstrations were given to the Prime Minister, BBC officials, the Post Office and press at Film House, Wardour Street, in March 1934. Every opportunity was taken of capturing the interest of the public. One ingenious example occurred at the fifth Annual General Meeting the same month when the shareholders were surprised at the absence of the chairman, Sir Harry Greer. He eventually appeared not in person but on a television screen and the Baird company report was delivered from a studio in the Crystal Palace. While he made his way back to the Wardour Street meeting place, the shareholders and the press enjoyed a variety show and excerpts from films.the letter to Baird from 10 Downing Street

Letter to Baird from 10 Downing Street

To promote his case, Baird donated a television set to 10 Downing Street. Thanking him for this "wonderful miracle" the Prime Minister wrote to him on April 5th, 1930: "Dear Mr Baird, I must thank you very warmly for this television instrument you have put into Downing Street. What a marvellous discovery you have made! ..." The letter was signed by James Ramsay MacDonald, who held office until 1935.

From February until June 1935 over 42 programmes were transmitted from the studios to various demonstration locations in London. Well known theatrical personalities took part — Alma Taylor made frequent appearances, others included Vivian Foster, Leonard Henry and Claude Dampier with Billie Carlyle. True to the tradition established at Long Acre, the Baird staff had a supporting role providing boxing matches, sketches from the Cafe del Diablo set and carrying out announcing duties. Transmission from the Crystal Palace continued until the disastrous fire in November 1936.


The recording of a boxing match in Studio 1, February, 1935a boxing match being televised

With the set up of the Television Advisory Committee in April 1934, means had to be found of providing programmes having good entertainment value. This meant dealing with groups of performers on a large stage. The flying-spot scanner (camera) could only cope with a small area of about 4 ft. square when operating at a definition of 180 lines. At that time (early in 1934) electronic cameras were still in the development stage and EMI had not yet produced any pictures of live objects using their Emitron tube. The only practical solution appeared to be the intermediate film process. This employed a cine camera using 5 mm film (split 35 mm stock for reasons of economy), developing and fixing the pictures immediately, typically within 30-50 seconds, and then passing them still wet through a telecine scanner.

Interchangeable lenses enabled close-up shots to be obtained, fast film kept the lightning requirements to a reasonable level and the exposed material could be washed and dried for future use. There were some inherent disadvantages. Due to the processing time the sound had to be recorded on the film, resulting in a significant deterioration in quality. The equipment could only be used from a fixed position, the programme length depended upon the size of the film magazine and a soundproof booth proved necessary to contain the noise generated by the drive motors. For all that, it was a sophisticated piece of equipment and enabled ambitious productions to be presented at a time when no alternatives were available.

Sydney Moseley with a Baird T5 mirror lid TV set T5 Televisor, Sydney Moseley "looking in", November, 1935

Between February and June 1935, over forty transmissions were made to various demonstration locations in London. In November the first of the dual standard sets, the T5, made its appearance at the Press Club for a special 240-line transmission which featured Leonard Henry. As the BBC had closed down the 30-line service in September and the opening of Alexandra Palace was still twelve months away, these were the only examples of live television to be seen in the country.

Telecine and Telerecording

On 19th August 1929, at the Baird Long Acre laboratories, the press witnessed for the first time talking films displayed on a television screen. Known then as Tele Talkies, they were produced by a continuous motion projector (Mechau) and scanned by a 30-hole disc. At the Crystal Palace telecine equipment figured prominently in the development programme. The early 180-line equipment used a scanning disc spinning at 3,000 rpm in a vacuum to avoid dust and air turbulence. A photocell was situated behind it. At a later stage tests were carried out using an electronic camera tube, the Farnsworth image dissector, for use in the telecine machines. Its considerable insensitivity did not matter for this type of application as any amount of light could be obtained from an arc lamp. Although free from shading (tilt and bend) and providing good detail in the shadows, it suffered from noise and geometric distortion.

Mechanical scanning arrangements were resumed for the 240-line telecine machines used initially at Alexandra Palace. The possibility of recording television programmes on film received considerable attention and by the end of 1934 this had been achieved using high-intensity cathode-ray tube and 17.5 mm cine camera. Projection receivers had not yet arrived and by using the fast processing techniques already mentioned, the recorded television images could be developed, fixed, washed, dried and then projected on to a large screen all within about two minutes.the Baird vision transmitter at Crystal Palace

The vision transmitter, February, 1935

Baird's vision and sound transmitters were rather impressive. The vision transmitter operated at the high power of 10 kW on 42.8 MHz, quite a feat late in 1934. Designed and built at the Crystal Palace, unusual steps had to be taken to avoid infringement of a Marconi patent on neutralising, a technique necessary with triode power amplifiers to prevent self oscillation. By using tetrode valves the need of this arrangement could be eliminated. It was decided to employ Metropolitan-Vickers constantly-pumped demountable the Baird sound transmitter at Crystal Palacetetrodes type 43, an entirely new departure for ultra short wave transmitters. MetroVick took a particular interest in this work and had one of their engineers on site for long periods during the trials. Two years later they obtained a contract from the Air Ministry for the supply of 19 radar transmitters to be used on the coastal chain and they bore a remarkable similarity to the Baird design. The sound occupied a separate channel on 35.3 MHz, using a 500 watt, amplitude-modulated transmitter. Both sound and vision aerials were attached to the top of the 275 ft. South Tower.

The sound transmitter, February, 1935

The Fire and After

A most spectacular conflagration lit up the London skyline on the night of the 30th November 1936, when the Crystal Palace, together with the Baird complex, was burnt to the ground. Only the South Tower, the School of Arts and the Rotunda in the Palace Grounds survived. It represented a catastrophe for the company, only slightly eased by the insurance pay-out of 80,000 Pounds, about 1.8 million pounds in today's money. Fortunately all the equipment purchased by the BBC for Alexandra Palace had been delivered six months earlier. The School of Arts had been producing the T5 mirror lid receiver during the past year and work on these continued. In the Rotunda 12, 15 and 22-inch diameter picture tubes were manufactured under the Cathovisor trade mark, in the gallery of this old building the vacuum physics department designed and produced split-anode magnetrons for the microwave-relay system, projection tubes capable of throwing a 13 ft. by 10 ft. television picture on a cinema screen and monoscopes (still picture tubes).

A photograph of the colour camera taken in the South Tower circa 1938There were two transmitters still in use at the South Tower. One on the fourth floor operated with a power of 200 watts on 150 MHz, the other radiated John Baird's colour television pictures between 1937 and 1939. He had a small studio at the bottom of the spiral staircase and occasionally the 120-line mirror drum colour camera would be trundled through a convenient gate nearby for televising the red trolleybuses on Anerley Hill.

The large-screen colour television camera, 1938

On 4 February 1938, a demonstration of colour television was introduced as a surprise item at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London. At the evening performance 3,000 people watched pictures from the Crystal Palace on a 12 ft. by 9 ft. screen. Although fully reported in the national and technical press at the time, few people seem to be aware of this achievement which represented a triple first for John Logie Baird. It was the first time that colour television had been transmitted by radio link or demonstrated to the public in a theatre and never before had any outside scenes been televised in colour.

Ray Herbert, C.Eng. (19182005)
an appreciation by Malcolm Baird

During Ray's years of active retirement he became a leading historian of the life and work of John Logie Baird. He was uniquely qualified for this through his early experience with Baird Television Ltd. and his network of contacts with former Baird employees. Geographically he lived within a short journey of the places where Baird had worked such as Hastings, Soho, Sydenham and the Crystal Palace.

I first met Ray in 1985 while on a sabbatical leave from my academic post in Canada. Until then I had been aware of my father's contributions in an overall sense, but pressures of time were keeping me from learning much of the fine detail. That first meeting with Ray encouraged me to undergo further education. We were both professional engineers and had the same "no-nonsense" approach, with all pieces of information traced to their sources, cross-checked and linked as far as possible to form a coherent story. His outstanding contribution to television history was his book Seeing by Wireless (1997). In 2001 he was of immense help to Antony Kamm and me in compiling our book John Logie Baird: a life. He played a major part in organising the special transmission of mechanically scanned television across the Atlantic on short wave in February 2003, marking the 75th anniversary of the first transatlantic television signal.

Television history is not always free of arguments, sometimes bitter, but I will always remember Ray's friendship. Several times I visited his home in Sanderstead and he and Helena treated me with the utmost hospitality and consideration, realising that I needed a peaceful break in my hectic visiting schedule. Ray's passing has been a major blow to his fellow television historians, but his memory lives on as sound and video recordings, innumerable articles, and his excellent book Seeing by Wireless.