1933 – 1939
John Logie Baird was born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland. Voted No. 44 in the BBC’s list of 100 Greatest Britons, he is one of those names that almost everyone has heard of. Inventor of mechanical television he also invented the flying spot telecine machine, a version of colour television, 600-line HDTV, 1000-line 3D television, live TV relays of sport events to cinema – and insulated socks. The socks came before all the TV stuff: he suffered from cold feet and developed a patented system which he marketed for a number of years. He also invented non-rusting razor blades but these were made of glass and sadly were prone to breaking.
It’s easy to poke fun at some of his early enterprises but he was genuinely one of those slightly eccentric but quite brilliant people who never stop thinking about how things could be made better. Television is of course what made his name but most people perhaps don’t realise that he had his own fully operational studio centre in south London at Crystal Palace way before the BBC established their somewhat smaller studio centre in north London at Alexandra Palace. The man was clearly a genius.
There are many excellent websites and books detailing Baird’s life and achievements which I would recommend tracking down. The subject of this website is television studios so I shall attempt now to summarise what he created at Crystal Palace. Actually, not quite yet because first I should mention his previous studio at 133 Long Acre.
Baird’s Long Acre Studio
At 3.30pm on Monday 14th July 1930, the first ever television play was transmitted. It came from Baird’s studio and workshop in Long Acre. Baird had previously experimented at Motograph House in St. Martin’s Lane but had moved to the larger Long Acre premises in 1928. He formed a new company – Baird Television Limited.
The play was The Man With the Flower in His Mouth by Luigi Pirandello. No, I have no idea why that play, but it was fairly short, relatively simple to stage and had a cast of only three. The play was transmitted live and had 29 shots. Only one camera was used and according to Richard G Elen…
‘The area that could be illuminated by the flying spot and reproduced with 30 lines was so small that only one actor could appear on “stage” at a time, with a special “fade board” of checkered squares slid in front of the photocells when it was necessary for a new actor to appear. And if any movements were too sudden, the system was all too likely to lose sync.’
The BBC broadcast the signal on the ‘National Programme’ so goodness knows what the pictures must have sounded like to the normal wireless listener. In fact, the pictures and sound were transmitted on separate frequencies – vision on 356 metres and sound on 261 metres, medium wave. The disadvantage of the long wavelengths was that only low-definition television signals could be carried, but the great advantage lay in their large range. Viewers saw the play as far away as Dublin and even Lisbon. These people were mostly enthusiasts who had purchased their Baird ‘Televisors’ in order to see the experimental broadcasts.
The transmission was clearly done with the blessing of the BBC who looked upon it as an interesting experiment but nothing to be taken too seriously. The BBC Year Book of 1931 states…
‘The experiment is still too recent for its implication to be grasped. It is possible that all the lessons learnt since the first play was broadcast will only need to be forgotten.’
What on Earth did they mean by that??!!
Despite their ambivalence over that first experiment, in mid-1932 the BBC began to carry out regular experimental television broadcasts from studio BB in the basement of Broadcasting House, using Baird’s 30-line system. Later, in 1934, they moved to a newly converted studio up the road at 16, Portland Place.
Sadly, around the same time as the BBC broadcasts began, Baird Television Ltd (BTL) was in severe financial difficulties. Their saviour came from the unlikely direction of Gaumont-British, the film company. That company acquired BTL and provided the financial support to enable Baird’s work to continue. In fact, the board of the company were not too keen on the direction Baird was taking – thinking he was concentrating too much on mechanical scanning. (They were of course quite right.)
In the summer of 1933 Gaumont British brought about a shake-up in BTL’s senior management. Baird’s close friend and ally Sydney Moseley resigned from the board. Baird agreed to give up formal administrative power, although he stayed on the board with the nominal title of Managing Director, earning a large salary, he functioned mainly in a research and advisory capacity and also as something of a figurehead because of his high public profile. Gaumont British brought in a new Technical Director in the person of Captain AGD West who had worked previously with the BBC, the Gramophone Company, and EMI.
Baird Television Ltd had remained in Long Acre for about five years until 1932. In early 1933 Baird himself moved house to Sydenham, a mile or so from the Crystal Palace. He set up a small laboratory next to the house where he had space to continue his experiments. He moved on from the original 30-line system to a much more sophisticated 120-line system. He also worked on other developments such as a large-screen television system, which was demonstrated by Gaumont-British in their cinemas. As these experiments delivered workable systems it was clear that the time had come to move to larger premises and discover how the new equipment could be used to produce a workable television service. In short – to become Britain’s first independent television company.
I am grateful to Derek Brady, who not only brought the existence of the first television play to my notice but also informed me about a re-creation of the play that was carried out in 1968 in the ILEA’s studios in Highbury. These temporary studios were created within a disused school and were used for a couple of years whilst the ILEA’s Battersea TV Centre was being constructed.
The crew for the re-creation was made up of the ILEA TV staff, some teachers and some ex-Baird engineers who had been brought out of retirement. It must have been quite an occasion. The play was subsequently demonstrated at the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1968.
The original Crystal Palace had been built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was only intended to be temporary but when the exhibition ended there was a public clamour to keep the building and move it elsewhere. The top of a hill in Sydenham, south London seemed ideal so it was indeed dismantled, transported and rebuilt, opening in November 1854. It was, however, even grander than before. Its architect, Joseph Paxton, redesigned it and increased its height from three stories to five, also adding new wings at each end. The enormous building was set in spectacular gardens, the centrepiece of which was an ornamental pond with a fountain that spouted 200 feet high. To achieve this feat, two water towers were constructed, one at each end of the building.
These water towers were engineering marvels in their own right since they had to support an immense weight of water and allow it to flow at the rate necessary for the fountains to gush to the required height. They went to the best engineer of the day – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, no less – and he delivered the goods. One of the towers may be seen in the background of the image above. Now you may be wondering what has all this to do with Mr Baird’s television service? All is about to become clear.
The towers were 275 feet high and were hence an ideal mounting for fixing transmission aerials. Since the building was on a hill the aerials would be 680 feet above sea level giving a line of sight ‘view’ of seven counties. Thus Baird decided that this would become the location for his new headquarters. One of the towers would provide a fixing point for his aerials and in the wing of the building below was a large space available to let. His company moved here in July 1933.
(It may not have escaped your notice that only three years later, the BBC would be using a very similar ‘palace’ – also on top of a hill – but this time a few miles north of central London and would build a 200 foot tower on top of it to enable their transmitter aerials to be almost the same height. Fancy that.)
The Post Office, known as the GPO in those days, was responsible for issuing licences to broadcast. They were happy to do so but thought they had better inform the BBC just in case they had a view. Rather surprisingly, Sir John Reith, the Director General, did approve but on the understanding that nothing that was broadcast would look like an independent television service. Baird’s people must have worked very hard to give reassurance on this score because no objection was raised by the BBC. In fact, of course, a public independent TV service was exactly what they had in mind.
What was constructed was quite extraordinary.
Baird Television Ltd leased 40,000 sq feet under the south transept in which studios, offices and laboratories were constructed. Later, the south rotunda was also leased, increasing the size to 60,000 sq feet. A transmitter was installed within the south tower and aerials fitted at the top. No less than 380 people were now employed by the company.
The BTL facility contained three studios, the largest of which was 60ft x 40ft. There was also a small ‘spotlight’ studio for continuity. This was a room in which the announcer sat in complete darkness. A spot of light scanned the person’s face and this produced the image. This was a very ingenious system but as we can see from our 21st century perspective, not very practical. Still, it worked and produced a perfectly acceptable picture on the viewer’s screen.
Baird by now had moved on from his mechanical disc system which was impractical if high resolution pictures were to be created. His greatest achievement actually was in scanning techniques as described above and as used to turn an image on film into an electronic signal. Thus, his studios made use of the ‘Intermediate Film System’ a technique whereby a film camera loaded with 17.5mm stock was focused on a scene in wideshot. The film was passed out of the camera and was processed in a bath of cyanide in less than a minute and whilst still wet was scanned by a flying spot device, thus producing an electronic signal that could be transmitted and received. Thus, the pictures produced were not exactly live but with only a one minute delay, as good as.
OK – there were clear limitations. The camera was huge and impossible to move, since it was physically connected to the developing and scanning system. Apart from anything, this meant that its use on outside broadcasts would be a challenge to say the least. However, the novelty of ordinary people seeing moving pictures in their own living room gave this system a chance of success, however brief.
Of course, other companies were working on their own television systems in the USA, in Germany and in the UK. In Britain, EMI was developing technology that was purely electronic using relatively small and mobile cameras, which could be cut and mixed electronically. That system was aiming towards 405 lines as opposed to BTL’s rather more modest 120 lines at that time. However, the EMI system was purely in the experimental stage and in 1933 Baird’s was up and running with a studio centre almost ready to transmit a whole evening’s viewing.
In 1934 EMI teamed up with the Marconi company who were experts in transmitters in order to develop that side of their system. Marconi also had access to television patents of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) including those for Zworykin’s electronic camera tube, the Iconoscope. EMI had already developed their own very good camera – the Emitron – but access to the RCA patents enabled them to improve it further.
Baird’s answer to this was to make a deal with Philo T Farnsworth, RCA’s great rival in America (see the section on ‘who invented television’.) Farnsworth agreed to make his electronic Image Dissector camera design available to BTL. This unfortunately was not as sophisticated as the Iconoscope and required much more light to make it work. However, it did give Baird a foot in the electronic door, so to speak, and although not very practical in 1934, in future years he would develop this technology further.
Baird was quite open about how his system was developing and the work of the company was freely publicised. In contrast, the work being done by other companies was carried out in great secrecy. Actually, Baird was no fool and whenever photographs of his equipment were taken he would add or remove crucial parts to throw competitors off the scent. Thus, the photos that exist of his early cameras and equipment are often quite misleading.
The Baird system improved in 1934 and the resolution increased to 180 lines. John Reith was invited to a demonstration at the Gaumont-British offices where telecine and live camera sources, transmitted from the BTL studios at Crystal Palace, were received using a cathode ray tube (CRT) made by GEC. The company was already using CRT technology for receivers that would essentially not change in principle until flat plasmas and LCD screens came in around the turn of the century. What was particularly impressive was the flying spot system of scanning film. EMI were still using a mechanical system at the time. Sadly, Reith failed to turn up. His distaste for television is well-known so perhaps this was no surprise.
In a further development, Baird television sets began to be manufactured in a nearby part of the Crystal Palace building. The ‘Baird’ brand would continue to be seen on TVs for many years hence. Meanwhile, work continued in the studios in preparation to commence broadcasting a regular independent service.
Not surprisingly, John Reith and the BBC eventually began to wake up to the possibility that a private company was about to begin a regular television service and they were nothing to do with it. In fact, the BBC were still carrying on with their 30-line experiments in Broadcasting House. A meeting was held on 5th April 1934 between the BBC and the GPO to decide what the future arrangements would be concerning television. In the great tradition of the British establishment – a committee was set up, headed by a peer of the realm, Lord Selsdon, who would report back and advise the Postmaster General on matters concerning television.
Meanwhile, at Crystal Palace, they were almost ready to begin a regular service. A new very powerful VHF transmitter was installed in December 1934 that could cover the whole of London and well beyond – to a distance of about 30 miles.
Lord Selsdon’s committee reported in January 1935. Knowing that Baird Television were about to begin but also aware of the pressure from Marconi-EMI, they proposed a television service that would transmit alternately, using the different systems. Perhaps to take the wind out of the Marconi-EMI sails, reporters were invited to visit Crystal Palace the day following the announcement. They were clearly astonished at the scale of the enterprise and indeed by the quality of the pictures. More than one reporter commented that it was pointless having the BBC build a new television studio centre in north London when everything that was needed was already there in south London. No doubt this was exactly the reaction that Baird was hoping for.
BTL proceeded to broadcast an ‘experimental’ service from then on. Between February and June 1935 over forty 180-line ‘demonstration’ transmissions were made from Crystal Palace. These generally ran for two hours, with several programmes involved. At the same time, the BBC continued with its 30-line service from Portland Place. This may have seemed a bizarre decision, but because the signals were of low definition the pictures could be sent on long waves which could be received all over the UK and even in parts of continental Europe. These transmissions ceased in September 1935, leaving Baird’s Crystal Palace service the only working television system available.
BTL knew that once people saw the clarity of the 405-line EMI system they would be in serious trouble so they worked hard to increase their system’s resolution. A BTL research team headed by the company’s Technical Director, ADG West, developed a 240-line 25 Hz system. This began to be used for transmissions from Crystal Palace in November 1935 and continued until the new BBC studios at Alexandra Palace began test broadcasts in August 1936.
Whilst visiting Sidmouth in Devon for a few days in the summer of 2014 I happened to pop into the town museum. Imagine my surprise to discover, quite randomly, a photograph of Baird’s original studio in a display case along with other interesting items donated by the Fleming family who used to live in Sidmouth. It seems that Sir Ambrose Fleming was a friend of Baird’s and is described in the letter shown below as a ‘pioneer’ of television. I have yet to discover exactly what his involvement with Baird was. Maybe he was just interested in what he was doing. Fleming was a scientist, working on early experiments in electricity and its possible applications. He invented the thermionic valve amongst many considerable achievements so is sometimes credited as being the father of electronics. He also gave lectures and wrote papers on alternating current and wireless telegraphy towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.
This photograph is the earliest example of any working television studio in the world that I have found, which is quite something. It pre-dates the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace and was taken in the summer of 1936 as the accompanying letter explains. I assume that the man in the black coat on the left is Baird, the older man in the black coat on the right must be Fleming.
Note that the café set is the same as can be seen on the Illustrated London News drawing shown above.
What is striking is the relative sophistication of the set and lighting. Considering this was being photographed in only 240 lines and being displayed on screens only 9 inches diagonally to a few hundred viewers, it is a tribute to all concerned that the production values were so high.
I owe a huge debt of thanks to Rab and Christine Barnard, curators of Sidmouth museum. They spent many months searching for the copyright holder of this photo after I wrote for permission to include it here. It was sent by what is now called the RTS to Lady Fleming but the copyright would be held by the photographer, who is unknown. It is now therefore the property of Sidmouth Museum so any requests to use it commercially should be addressed to them.
On November 2nd 1936 the BBC began the world’s first regular ‘high definition’ television service from Alexandra Palace. The important word here is ‘regular.’ Up until now the BBC’s and Baird’s broadcasts had been irregular and experimental. The new BBC service used the Baird and EMI systems on alternate weeks. The BBC at that time termed ‘high definition’ as being anything over 240 lines. (Today’s HD channels transmit 1080 lines.)
Thus, the studios at Crystal Palace were no longer needed. They had served their purpose as experimental studios, training the staff and crews on learning how to make programmes, how to link them with continuity announcements and how to overcome all the inevitable technical breakdowns that come with using cutting edge technology. However, the company was still busy. The real money in television was to be made from selling TV receivers. At the factory in Crystal Palace they produced dual-standard sets that could receive both systems.
Things were not going too well at Alexandra Palace, however. It was immediately clear to those making the programmes that the Baird Intermediate Camera System using only one static camera was nothing like as flexible as the EMI system where three cameras could track around the studio, moving in for close-ups and developing round a set or artist. The system was proving technically unreliable too. Bubbles in the cyanide developing bath were affecting both picture and sound. They did briefly experiment with the electronic camera developed by the American inventor, Philo Farnsworth, but as mentioned above it was found to be too insensitive.
Just as it looked as though things could not be going worse, on 30th November fire broke out at Crystal Palace and most of the building was destroyed. The studios and surrounding areas were completely ruined so many spares and much other equipment was lost. To cap it all, within a couple of weeks the BBC prematurely ended the trial of the two systems at AP. They decided to equip both studios with EMI cameras.
Fortunately, not quite all of the Crystal Palace building had been destroyed. Luckily, the television set factory was undamaged as was the plant manufacturing CRT tubes. The insurance money also enabled work to continue on the Gaumont-British system to transmit newsreels via TV to cinemas. Baird also worked on his colour TV system. A small studio was built on a lower floor of the water tower, which had also survived the fire, and experimental colour broadcasts were thus transmitted from Crystal Palace. This development was demonstrated in February 1938 at the Dominion Theatre where images were projected onto a large screen.
In September 1939 war was declared and BTL was wound up. However, a new company – Cinema Television was formed. Many of the former BTL technical staff, including Captain West, joined the new company. This later became CinTel and after being bought by the Rank Organisation became the leading company in flying-spot technology producing telecine machines for all the world’s broadcasters. This system was directly descended from Baird’s research. Rank Cintel also took over the cathode ray tube factory from BTL and during the war they manufactured over 100,000 CRTs for radar display screens.
After BTL had been wound up in late 1939, Baird himself continued his research independently, drawing on his savings. He produced a 600-line colour projection system and in 1944 an all-electronic colour receiver tube called the Telechrome. The earlier colour system was further refined to produce high definition stereoscopic images in colour. Quite extraordinary. In fact, of course, it would be 1966 before colour television eventually began in the UK and we had to wait until 2010 for a stereoscopic 3D channel to begin regular broadcasts.
In 1944/45 Baird was taken on as a consultant to Hammersmith Studios (later to become Riverside Studios). They were interested in developing his system for showing events on giant TV screens in cinemas. How appropriate therefore that on 8th March 2008 those studios were the venue for a fascinating experiment, of which Baird would certainly have approved! It was the world’s first live 3D high definition screening of a sporting event via satellite – a rugby match as it happens. It is astonishing that it was over 60 years before the technologies that Baird was developing eventually came together.
In 1944 the British government set up a committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Hankey, to look into the prospects for television after the war. Testimony was received from many sources in the BBC and the television industry – and one private individual, John Logie Baird. He recommended that within a few years the British system should move to high definition (1000 lines), colour and eventually stereoscopic television. This of course has happened, though not quite in that order and over a far slower time frame than Baird anticipated.
Sadly, Baird died in 1946 before he could see just how important television would become throughout the world.
Information for the above section is taken from various sources but I am particularly indebted to two people. Firstly, Richard G Elen, who has written an article that can be found on www.transdiffusion.org/emc/baird/baird_itv.php. A visit to the site is highly recommended for a more in-depth analysis.
I have also been contacted by Baird’s son, Malcolm, who has been kind enough to send me corrections and further information. Along with Antony Kamm he has co-authored a biography of his father – ‘John Logie Baird: a life ‘ – which is well worth reading. More information can be discovered on the website run by Malcolm – www.bairdtelevision.com.