Television—75 Years after Alexandra Palace

A personal retrospect by Malcolm Baird. It appeared in the 2012 BVWS quarterly bulletin, and was based on a much shorter opinion piece in the 2 November 2011 issue of Scotland's mass circuation newspaper, the Daily Record

Malcolm Baird received the Pat Legatt award [a splendid inlaid glass plaque] from the Britsh Vintage Wireless Society (BVWS) for [this] their best article in 2012.

On 2 November 1936, a small group of stiffly dressed dignitaries sat under bright floodlights in London's Alexandra Palace, waiting to be televised. This historic event is said to be the start of world's first regular high definition television service, although a few months earlier the Berlin Olympic Games had been televised to enthusiastic audiences in special viewing parlours.

The platform group at Alexandra Palace was missing two notable public figures, both scotsmen as it so happened. The director general of the BBC, Sir John Reith (1), was away on a few days' holiday. The television pioneer John Logie Baird (2,3) was present in the studio but he had not been invited to the platform. He later wrote: "All the notabilities … appeared on the platform and were televised. All except Mr. Baird, who sat in considerable anger and disgust in the body of the hall among the rank and file. Thus is pioneer work recognized."

The launch of the television service 2 November 1936, Baird Studio, Alexandra Palace

The range of the Alexandra Palace transmitter was limited to the greater London area and only a few thousand households could afford the hefty price of a television set. Viewers were treated to short speeches from the Postmaster General (Major Charles Tryon), the chairman of the BBC (R.C. Norman) and executives from two rival television manufacturers whose cameras were to be tested for the first few weeks of broadcasting. Baird Television Ltd. was represented by its chairman Sir Harry Greer, a Winston Churchill look-alike. Marconi-EMI Ltd. was represented by a bland American businessman called Alfred Clark, the chairman of EMI. The fifth member of the platform group was Lord Selsdon whose Television Committee had organized the competition between Baird Television and Marconi-EMI.

Selsdon ended the round of speeches with a high-flown line from Rudyard Kipling: ”you keep your light so shining, a little in front o' the next!" That line was loosely based upon the Christian gospel according to St.Matthew, ch.5 verse 16. I shall come back to it later in this article.

Formative years: 1926 to 1936

John Logie Baird with his original apparatus at the Science Museum, 1926

Press photographs from 1926 show Baird as a long-haired young man wearing a rather loud checked sports jacket, standing by a mechanical assembly of rotating discs and electric motors and neon lamps… the world's first working television system. In 1928 he sent head-and-shoulders television pictures by short wave radio from London to New York, making front page news in Britain and the USA. From this point on, large companies began to pour money into television research, in particular the cathode ray tube receiver and the electronic camera which were eventually to replace mechanical scanning.

In 1932, Baird Television Ltd., which had been in some financial trouble, was quietly taken over by Gaumont British Pictures (4), a big film-making and cinema combine. After the takeover, Baird Television Ltd. still kept its name and Baird himself stayed on at a good salary, although he lost administrative control of the company. The infusion of capital from Gaumont British allowed the company to hire talented young physicists, such as Alfred Sommer, Jan Forman and Gilbert Tomes, under the new technical director Captain A.G.D. West.(5)

Baird Television's research began to branch out from mechanical into electronic television and in 1935 the company reached an agreement with Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the young American inventor of the image dissector camera. Farnsworth was embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who were developing the Iconoscope electronic camera which they claimed had been invented by Vladimir Zworykin. But central to the Iconoscope were ideas owned by Farnsworth. The lawsuit was not finally settled until 1939, in Farnsworth's favour.

The Baird company was also exploring an interesting third alternative technology. This was the "intermediate film" (IF) process in which a scene was filmed conventionally and the exposed film was then continuously fed into developing tanks and finally scanned to give a television signal after an interval of a minute or so. The IF process was awkward because of its use of toxic chemical solutions in the studio, but its great advantage was that the exposed film provided a high quality recording of every television programme, for possible later playback.

Baird's main rival was Marconi-EMI, a joint company that had been formed early in 1934. It took up the earlier development work by EMI and it had full rights to the use of the RCA patents. Marconi-EMI developed its Emitron camera which was an improved version of the RCA Iconoscope camera. All these technical activities were taking place amid increasing public interest and enthusiasm for television.

Enter the BBC

Under the terms of the Broadcasting Act, television could only be broadcast in Britain by the BBC. Since its foundation in 1922, its director general had been the formidable John Reith who had trained at Glasgow's Royal Technical College at about the same time as Baird. Both were the sons of Presbyterian ministers however, the relationship between them was strained (2). Reith believed strongly in the educational value of the spoken word, but his puritanical streak was outraged by the corrupting flickery images of television. He also resented the newspaper articles by Baird's outspoken publicist, Sydney Moseley, pestering the BBC to start broadcasting television.

Eventually and with reluctance, the BBC began experimental broadcasts in 1929, with the programmes coming from a makeshift studio at the office of Baird Television Ltd. A year later the BBC opened its own television studio in the basement of Broadcasting House and they went so far as to hire a producer, Major Eustace Robb. Images were formed at a very low definition (30 lines) which limited the programmes to head-and-shoulder shots for the most part. Songs, talks and poetic recitations were shown late at night on "medium wave" (260 metres) after the close down of the regular radio programme, but nevertheless they attracted much interest and they could be viewed on the world's first mass-produced television set, the Baird Televisor. The experimental broadcasts continued until September 1935, by which time the launch of higher definition television was in sight.

In order to broadcast the higher definition signals, a much shorter wavelength of 6.7 metres was chosen and for this the viewers needed to buy special (and expensive) receivers. The transmitter and the aerial were located on high ground at Alexandra Palace. Despite its disadvantage of limited range (the greater London area), the short wavelength was technically necessary in order to accommodate the bandwidth required by high definition signals.

Baird Television offered a menu of three different camera systems: mechanically scanned cameras using a flying spot scanner, electronic cameras using an upgraded version of Farnsworth’s technology, and the intermediate film system. The broadcast pictures came through at 240 lines although Captain West reported that much higher definitions had been achieved.(5)

Marconi-EMI, after expensive and largely unpublicized research, had developed their Emitron camera to give a 405 line picture. The public could buy receivers with dual controls which allowed reception from either system. The video display was on a cathode ray tube (black and white) with a screen size of typically 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm).

The competition between Marconi-EMI and Baird Television did not last long. Although there was little to choose between the two systems in terms of picture quality, the small and convenient Emitron cameras were more reliable and allowed much easier working conditions in the studio they could also be used outside, in the Alexandra Palace grounds Baird's "flying spot" mechanical cameras and the chemical-laden intermediate film system were inflexible, and the Farnsworth electronic camera was found to be rather insensitive. In early 1937 the public decision was made to abandon the Baird system (or rather, systems) in favour of the Marconi-EMI 405 line system. However the BBC retained Baird's mechanical telecine system to broadcast pre-shot filmed items. This was not mentioned in the publicity on the "defeat" of the Baird system.

The BBC's television service continued in the London area until just before the outbreak of World War II. It was resumed in June 1946, using the prewar cameras which had been mothballed for the duration of the war. In 1944 John Logie Baird had proposed to a government committee that television should be developed with the advances that he had been working on throughout the war years (2,5), such as colour and higher definition but he died in 1946 and there was no money for new television technology. Moreover there was very little money to pay for the television programmes themselves. Throughout the postwar years of austerity, the BBC listed its television schedule in small print on the back pages of the Radio Times during the fuel crisis of 1947, television was shut down entirely. Over the next few years television stations were opened up in what the BBC condescendingly called "the regions". I have happy memories of the opening of television at BBC Scotland in 1952, an innocent little ceremony at the Edinburgh studio, ending with a prayer of dedication of the new service.

Opening ceremony, BBC Scotland television, March 14 1952

It was only in 1953 that viewer numbers began to expand rapidly. Growth was driven by the televising of the Coronation and also by the falling cost of television for the home viewer. Sets could be rented for a few shillings a week, while the rental charge included any repair costs incurred.

Enter independent television

There was a strong feeling among television set manufacturers and some Conservative MPs that BBC television was in need of competition. A leader in this campaign was C.O. Stanley, the outspoken head of Pye of Cambridge (6). In 1954 a new Act was passed, allowing independent (i.e.commercial) television stations and thereby breaking the BBC's monopoly. This was opposed by educational and church leaders and, of course, by the BBC itself. Reith (now Lord Reith) publicly compared the arrival of independent television to the arrival of the bubonic plague.

John Logie Baird had recommended independent television in 1944 in his evidence to the Hankey Committee on the future of television. There is little doubt that had he lived, he would have been one of the strongest supporters of independent television in the 1950s. His company had also built its own complete independent television studio at the Crystal Palace in 1934, although it was never used for broadcasting and it was later destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire in 1936.

Technology and change

In the 1950s, British television (BBC and ITV) still ran on the old Marconi-EMI 405 line system. This suffered from limitations such as the lack of colour, the lack of any reliable means of recording programmes, and the definition which was lower than that of the USA and the newly opened systems in continental Europe. Technical progress continued, slowly but steadily. In about 1960 high quality video recorders were introduced, in 1964 definition was improved from 405 to 625 lines and finally, in 1967, colour television was started. The introduction of colour and higher definition came many years after they had first been recommended by Baird in his testimony to the Hankey committee in 1944. It is interesting to note that Baird colour receivers were made between 1968 and 1978 although the name was just a brand used by the parent company, Thorn Electrical. The factory was located in Bradford and it was closed in 1978 with the loss of 2200 jobs, due to Japanese competition.

page from a 1968 Thorn Electrical brochure (courtesy Alan Montgomery)

It is difficult to summarise the most recent technical developments, but there are a few highlights. Communications satellites have turned television into a global medium digital and flat-screen technology have led to the disappearance of the heavy and rather dangerous cathode ray tubes programme choice has increased enormously. If Baird, Farnsworth, Zworykin and the other pioneers were alive today, they would be bowled over by what has happened, in the technical sense.

After about 1970, the television industry in the western world began to change profoundly. The mass manufacture of television sets shifted to Asia and the British television brand names like Pye, EMI and Baird, disappeared. In the USA, the gargantuan Radio Corporation of America (RCA) closed in 1987. The meaning of the term "television industry" changed from the engineering aspect to the programme making aspect. In Britain this change was faithfully reflected by the Television Society, which had been a low-key group of scientists and electronic engineers ever since its formation in 1927. In 1966 the society acquired royal patronage, becoming the Royal Television Society. By 1980 its membership was mainly articulate and well-paid producers and media executives, while the low-key engineers faded gently into the background. In the USA, the new power of the television broadcasters was the theme of the award-winning movie Network (1976).

Programmes: the dross and the nuggets

Very very occasionally, one hears it said that a television programme is "pure gold". However it is a fact of life that gold ores usually contain less than an ounce (28 grams) of pure gold per ton, a small fraction of one percent. The remainder is known as dross, or tailings. The same can sadly be said of modern television programmes.

As early as 1961, Newton Minow (chair of the US Federal Communications Commission) told a stunned audience of television executives that their medium had become a vast wasteland. He went on: "you will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom." The only thing that has changed after 50 years has been the disappearance of the western.

The great technical pioneers Farnsworth and Zworykin both lived on into television's modern age and they were appalled by what they saw on the small screen. In Britain, Lord Reith was interviewed in 1967 by Malcolm Muggeridge and declared that television was "a social menace of the first magnitude."(7) He admitted that he had been afraid of it from the outset.

This having been said, there were always some nuggets among the dross. I remember as a teenager in 1954 being entranced by a showing of Bizet's Carmen I had never seen an opera before, but television and the BBC made it possible. Later there came the brilliant dramatic adaptations of great books, starting with Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and reaching a zenith with Brideshead Revisited. But since about 1990, the quality of television has been weakened by the F-word. .. fragmentation. As the number of available channels has increased, the income from advertisers has been thinly stretched and the competition between broadcasters has intensified. The pure gold is gradually getting scarcer, or in mining terms, the ore grade is going down.

The venerable BBC could have provided leadership with the help of its guaranteed licence funding but it decided to "compete" by making its programmes more attractive to the mass audience. With so many television stations broadcasting, often on a 24 hour schedule, a lot of airspace had to be filled at the lowest possible cost. This has all led to a proliferation of repeats, talent shows without much talent, reality shows without much reality, and sketchy documentaries which feature jokey presenters glossing over the factual inaccuracies. In the early 1990s the BBC's in-house drama department was decimated and this was the subject of a controversial recent novel (8). As a present-day example of what has happened to television, the disturbing shots of the London riots in August 2011 were followed by an equally disturbing discussion programme on the BBC, seen around the world on their website, with everyone shouting at each other and no one able to be heard. In the USA and in Russia, free fights have broken out in the studio during live television broadcasts. The medium seems to bring out the worst in people.

John Reith and my father were both raised in the Victorian era. They believed in human progress, the value of education and the need for good manners. Although they had some differences, I am sure the two men would have shared the same opinion of most of the current programmes. Lord Selsdon's biblically inspired quote at the 1936 event in Alexandra Palace, "keep your light so shining ..", rings terribly hollow today. At a time in human history when more people than ever before are studying at universities, television seems to be recoiling from education whether it is in the arts or the sciences. In the United States the cash-starved educational television network (PBS) has to resort to on-air charitable appeals.

The outside observer of today's industry is tempted to accept Reith's view of television as a social menace, but perhaps that is too sweeping a generalization. Every now and then we are reminded of television's saving grace – its ability to bring major news and sports events, as they happen, to the home screen. Examples in 2011 have included a big royal wedding, the overthrow of the oppressive regime in Libya, and the London riots.

Then, with a dull thud, we are dropped back among the dross, with the banal talking heads and the low-budget shows that are so familiar. I have lost count of the number of articles in the British press that say something like "John Logie Baird would have been turning in his grave if he could have seen --- (such and such programme)". Some of these articles appear in the mass-circulation tabloid press (such as Scotland's Daily Record) which does not cater for the educated elite. This weakens the often-made excuse that poor quality television programmes are "what the majority want." Neil Postman pointed out part of the problem is that television is the enemy of rational argument, because viewers are only passively involved.

Where to now?

The passive aspect of television has changed profoundly thanks to technology, viewers have more control and participation. We may be seeing the end of the close-knit media empires that dictate which programmes shall be seen and when they will be seen. Those who hark back to the good old days of television can view classic programmes on DVD or VOD at moderate cost. It has even been said that individually produced online videos with paid advertisements will become "the new television". To go back once more to the mining analogy, the dross will still be there but it will be easier for the viewer to find his or her particular gold. Technology will still be the driving force for television, as it was for the first 85 years of its existence. Let us all hope that Lord Selsdon's shining light will eventually reappear.

Recommended reference books – refs (1) to (5) and (8) have been reviewed on this website.

  1. Marista Leishman, My father, Reith of the BBC, Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh (2006).
  2. Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: a life, NMS Publications, Edinburgh (2002)
  3. John Logie Baird, Television and Me, Mercat Press (now part of Birlinn), Edinburgh (2004)
  4. Nigel Ostrer, The Ostrers and Gaumont British, Lulu Enterprises, Inc. (2010).
  5. Douglas Brown, Images Across Space: the electronic imaging of Baird Television, Middlesex University Technical Services (2009) – obtainable via the Radio Society of Great Britain and reviewed by Malcolm Baird on p.36 of the Spring 2010 issue of the B.V.W.S.Bulletin.
  6. Mark Frankland, Radio man: the remarkable rise and fall of C.O. Stanley, Institution of Electrical Engineers (2002)
  7. Malcolm Muggeridge, Muggeridge Ancient and Modern, BBC (1981) – includes the transcript of the Reith interview in 1967.
  8. Heather Peace, All to Play For, Legend Press (November 2011).