Sunday, 5 September 2021
The Remarkable Birth of Television
At one point in The Living Shadow, the first novel in The Shadow series, the mysterious crime fighter communicates with his agents via television. The year was 1931, and television was ultra-high-tech - so high, in fact, that the author does not appear to have introduced it again. By the end of the 1930s a few countries had a few television stations in a few cities for a few customers, but introducing the technology involved a vast network of channels, performers, and customers, that it is no wonder that it did not take off until after the war. Television has been part of our lives for so long, that hardly anyone knows the remarkable series of events which led to its development. Fear not, I happened to discover an article on the subject in - believe it or not! - a British boys' magazine of 1939, which I am pleased to share with you. You may also care to note the predictions made by the author, and see how they turned out.
The Romance of Modern Invention. Television
by W. B. Home-Call
Chums (1939), pp 254-5
The days of the wireless set that can only receive sound are numbered. It may not be this year, it may not be next, but sooner or later all wireless receivers will receive television, and sightless broadcasting will be as dead as silent pictures.
It is to the pertinacious experiments of John Logie Baird, the son of the Scottish manse at Helensburgh, that the present development of television is largely due. He discovered television. His first practical success was being when he actually televised the head of an office boy over a short distance towards the end of 1925.
Mr. Baird has presented his first television apparatus to the Science Museum, South Kensington, London. You can see it there during any of the usual hours when the Museum is open. It is made from old bicycle parts, cocoa tins, bulls-eye lenses, sealing wax, and string, and it only cost Mr. Baird 7s. 6d. to make. [This is £21.87 in 2020 values, and three times as much in labour value.]
Mr. Baird's system of television was first actually broadcast in 1926 through the old 2LO broadcasting station from Motograph House in London. Motograph House was at that time the headquarters of the Baird Television Company. The television broadcasts of 1926 were, of course, purely experimental and were very soon discontinued, but the Baird Television Company applied for, and obtained, a licence to transmit television independently, erecting their own wireless station and sending out from their own studio.
These studio transmissions had to be stopped because it was impossible to find a wave-length for them on the medium wave-band which did not cause interference with other services. On September 30th, 1929, however, the Baird Television Company recommenced broadcasting through 2LO once more from their studios in Long Acre, and a little later the whole of the Baird apparatus was transferred to the B.B.C.
A Television Committee was set up by the Government in 1934 to advise the Postmaster-General on the relative merits of the several systems of television that were at that time being improved, for Baird had other inventors close on his heels. The Committee was also asked to recommend the conditions under which any public service should be provided. It met for the first time on May 29th, 1934. It invited the co-operation of societies, firms and individuals interested in television, and each television company had an opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities and possibilities of its own system. Every member of the committee was sworn to secrecy about everything he was shown and told, and it seemed a long time before they were ready to report on their discoveries.
In the meantime the first television theatres appeared in England.
Northern holiday crowds at Blackpool and Morecambe in July, 1934, were the first to test the pleasures of real television theatres in which reproductions of events happening up to 20 miles away were projected on the screen. A slight last-minute hitch prevented Morecambe's Television Theatre opening on the day planned, so for a short while the Blackpool venture, located inconspicuously near the Central Pier, stood unchallenged as the only place in Britain where the public could enter a darkened room and see a televised moving picture on the screen.
The inventor of the apparatus used at Morecambe was Mr. F. Cockcroft Taylor.
Actors and actresses who were willing to permit themselves to be televised in 1934, had, in the studio, to make-up like cannibals in full war paint. First they had to paint their faces dead white, then thick blue lines were put down the sides of their noses to bring that part of the face out properly. Their eyelids had to be painted mauve, their lips blue, and their eyebrows were made enormously big and heavy, like George Robey's. The rest of their faces were left dead white.
The actual recording was a further ordeal. The artiste had to stand in front of an instrument resembling a camera, which threw a dead-white flickering light on the artiste's face the whole time. One flinch could spoil the effectiveness of a broadcast. For close-ups the performer was surrounded by wooden shutters and had to be taught how he might or might not use his arms. The actor or actress had to wear clothes of a certain colour - black and white, grey or blue - and lastly they had to make facial expressions at a metal instrument as intimately as if it were a first-night audience.
Television has always meant hard work for those responsible for its transmission. In the half-dark of a television studio during a transmission some of the most feverish scene-shifting in London took place in the early part of 1935. There was little room to move, and speed was the whole essence of a successful transmission. For instance whilst the caption machine was working, a staircase, furniture and back-scene had to be rushed within the narrow beam of the television eye. Afterwards, as quickly, they had to be hurried away.
Nowadays television artistes have to make-up just as if they were acting for the films or the stage - no more and no less. Nor, of course, do they have to stand still in front of fixed camera. The camera can follow them. Lights flash up in the corner of a modern television studio - a small room still, compared to some of the concert studios still reserved for sound broadcasting only. High overhead, near the ceiling, indicators flicker into life: "Sound on, Vision on." All chatter drifts to another corner of the studio. The microphones, which are slung on booms, as in film productions, are directionally sensitive, so that people can talk six yards away from them without creating ground noise or interfering with the talk that will be broadcasted.
At the time of writing the newest wonder of Television is the Emitron. It is not a camera in the true meaning of the world, but it picks up and transmits an image direct to the receiving screen. The Emitron can be moved about a studio with ease. It demonstrates that camera technique will come to be as important a branch of television as any other. Travelling "shots" of artistes and announcer, fade-outs from one scene to another and a panoramic "signature picture" - a view of London from the Alexandra Palace - are among the features in can perform.
The discovery of the 200-way cable allowed television "off the leash". The first outdoor scenes were either all enacted for the television screen in or near the grounds of Alexandra Palace or cinematograph films of an outdoor incident were taken, and then the films were re-photographed by the television camera in the studio. This was because the television camera had always to be connected with the control room at Alexandra Palace. A heavy cable, a thousand feet in length, and containing 22 conductors through its length, was the "leash". The television camera could go as far away as that cable would stretch, but no farther; and instead of the television camera going to interesting events, as the cinema-newsreel camera does, the interesting events had to be brought to the camera. Sheep-dog trials, riding lessons, new cars and old crocks, demonstrations of ever sport from golf to archery; all these provided excellent subjects for television, but always within the confines of Alexandra Palace.
With the advent of King George VI's Coronation, an innovation in television outside broadcasts came into being. Emitron cameras, and a van containing control apparatus similar to that at Alexandra Palace, were installed at Hyde Park Corner, and the pictures were conveyed to the television headquarters by the new cable which had been laid to link Hyde Park Corner, Broadcasting House and Alexandra Palace. This cable connects with an underground cable system which has been laid under many miles of London streets, linking most of the important points in Central London with wireless and television headquarters.
One of the problems of television outside broadcasts is that of concealing the microphones from the view of the camera. No longer do objects to be televised have to be brought directly in front of the television camera, just the opposite. The emitron has an entire circular panorama as its field of vision, so that it is frequently a problem where to put the microphone, which should hang a few feet above the heads of the speaker and yet should not appear in the picture. If there is any wind, the difficulty is increased, as the microphone has to be protected by a hood, which tends to make it more prominent.
Television has been "viewed" in an aeroplane 4,000 ft. up, flying at 170 miles an hour. The first television fitted to an aeroplane was a Baird "Televisor," which weighted 420 lbs. and was fitted to a Royal Dutch air liner. As the machine circled over Croydon and headed for the Olympia building, where a radio exhibition was being held, the passengers in the air liner watched a news film showing the sea liner, Queen Mary, starting off on her maiden voyage. The news-film was being televised from the Alexandra Palace transmitter. The pictures were clear and the sound became louder and more distinct as the plane climbed. At two thousand feet reception was perfect.
Many Croydon pilots believe that the day is not far off when television will assist them in bad weather. "It will soon be possible," a pilot has declared, "to televise from the ground a film of the aerodrome hidden from view by fog."
Television pictures have been converted into mechanical vibrations which have been recorded on a gramophone record. When these are played back to a television set, by means of a pick-up, the set reconverts the mechanical vibrations into electrical vibrations - and then into television pictures. The inventor, Mr. F. Plew, has thus enabled viewers to be as independent of broadcasting station as any listener has been who has an ordinary gramophone record on his radiogram. Television by gramophone record is known as "gramovision" or "recorded television."
As long ago as the day when the B.B.C. televised silent pictures over a medium wave-length, an attempt was made to obtain a permanent record of a televised picture, so that it could be broadcast again and again without having to be re-photographed. The television signals were recorded on a film by the variable density method familiar in "talkie" films technique. In the demonstration given, however, the reproduced images of those days were of poor definition, having lost in the re-take.
Although in 1934 Germany claimed to have opened the first public television service in the world, experts from every land have always admitted that our television organisation is further advanced than any other country's in the world.
The opening of combined television and telephone services between the greater German cities, it was announced by the German Ministry of Post as long ago as August, 1934, was being seriously considered by them. The first service was proposed to be between Berlin and Munich. The call-boxes were to contain an ordinary telephone instrument and a television transmission and reception apparatus. These call-boxes were installed in the central telegraph offices in both cities, and while a conversation was proceeding each speaker was able to see on the television screen before him the image of the other. It was admitted when the scheme was first mooted that it would be so expensive that the service would be mostly of experimental value. In December of the same year it was announced that the scheme had been temporarily suspended, as far too costly for general use.
Such call-boxes have not been installed in England yet, but as long ago as February, 1935, an audience in one part of London watched a screen on which they saw Miss Alma Taylor - a pioneer in silent films and now a pioneer in television - trying on hats, in the studio in the south tower of the ill-fated Crystal Palace. Mr. Baird then suggested that the audience in Westminster might like to speak to Miss Taylor at the Crystal Palace. She was called up on the telephone and complimented on the charming appearance of the hats; and she was seen to take up the telephone receiver, and her response was plainly heard in the hall in Westminster. She was seen just as clearly as she was heard.
It will not be long before television subscribers will be able to do their shopping in their own homes, the salesman at one end showing in close-ups on the television screen the article the customer miles away wishes to examine before purchasing.
The cinema industry, being world-wide, can spend from £30,000 to £80,000 on each feature picture. It is obvious that that British Broadcasting Corporation cannot provide a daily feature for home consumption costing that amount, and experience shows that, with an occasional exception, the cheaper pictures are usually much less attractive. The B.B.C.s portion of the present ten shillings a year [equivalent to £29 today] licence fee is too small to allow for programme expenditure running into tens of thousands of pounds. Television theatres might be opened, owned by the B.B.C., admission profits thus going to the B.B.C., but even then the televised pictures would have to reach audiences all over the world to be able to compete with the films.
Television is more likely to be called in by film firms to aid them. In June, 1935, films which had been taken at the Crystal Palace by the intermediate progress of television, were projected on to the screen of a cinema in Cardiff. Instead of making several copies of a film, film firms may arrange for a copy of the film to be televised to certain cinemas equipped to give screen television. Provincial cinemas ma have their own distributing stations where films will be televised to local areas only.
Newsreel theatres are likely to be harder hit by television than story-theatres. The finish of the Derby was transmitted on the Metropole Cinema in London in 1933. Three telephone lines then had to be used. But the transmission of the Coronation has shown that events can be televised so that owners of television sets can watch events in their homes simultaneously with people on the spot of the occurrence.
News-reel theatres, at the earliest, can only show films a few hours after the occurrence of an event, so television definitely has a chance to be first with the news, and television theatres, serving news instantaneously - quicker than films or newspapers can ever hope to serve it - may be the news-bearers of the future.