Opening Night of Television

Alexandra Palace

On 2nd November 1936 the BBC launched the world's first high-definition television service from studios at Alexandra Palace. Two companies raced to bring one of the greatest revolutions in entertainment and communication to the world.

Birth of Television
John Logie Baird had successfully demonstrated television to members of the Royal Institution on 26th January 1926; transmitting images of a ventriloquist's doll between rooms in his Soho laboratory.

Baird developed his invention to produce an experimental television service using scanning discs to capture and display the images.

The television images were made of 30 lines and produced a low quality image on a small screen. Baird demonstrated at Selfridge's department store and eventually in partnership with the BBC.

Though few could afford a television and the quantity of programming was limited there was great public interest in the latest technological marvel.

Excitement grew and the BBC received 'attacks' from the public demanding the launch of television, under the perception that the experiment was more progressed than it in fact was.

Planning a Service
A committee was established to consider the conditions needed to establish a permanent television service.

It recommended the older service be replaced with 'high definition', using a minimum of 240 lines. This larger screen would allow for a better viewing experience and more varied programming.

Cathode Ray Tubes were needed to present high definition images. Early models were long, so mounted vertically with a mirror to reflect the picture. Some exploded from pressure on the thin glass

The report recommended trialling two forms of television; the electro-mechanical, developed from Baird's original experiments, and a brand new all electrical system being developed by Marconi-EMI.

Isaac Shoenberg headed up the EMI Research Laboratories. He made the momentous decision of pursuing an even greater 405 line definition, gambling a huge investment on his well placed faith on his team

The Marconi-EMI team created a completely electrical form of capturing live images using electrons in a vacuum tube, similar to the cathode ray tubes of the television screen.

The Emitron camera was light weight and flexible but needed a huge amount of light to capture an image and was still being refined.

Building a Television Station
Alexandra Palace, with its prominent position over London, and extensive under used spaces was selected as the first for the London Television Station. The two systems would be trialled in adjoining studios.

In order to generate maximum coverage for the television signal a mast needed to be constructed to 600ft above sea level.

Alexandra Palace sits on a hill, with an 80ft Victorian tower in place the BBC added a 220ft mast in order to transmit the television signal over London.

Former private dining rooms were taken out to form the new studio spaces. This room would become Studio B used by the Baird Company.

Studio B used the Intermediate Film Technique (IFT) a film camera mounted above developing tanks which rapidly developed the footage to be scanned for transmission.

Chief Engineer Douglas Birkenshaw explains the IFT

The IFT camera sat in a permanent bay on the south-wall of the studio.

The Baird Studio had three different technologies for transmission. In addition to the main Studio B there was a spotlight studio for close-ups of presenters.

The third process was this telecine machine which transmitted programmes shot on film, such as newsreels.

In contrast to the static IFT, the Marconi-EMI Emitron camera was lightweight and able to move around the studio. Three were installed in Studio A.

The mobile cameras allowed more flexibility for how to present programmes, with ability to move around the studio and cut more quickly between cameras.

Both systems were pushing the limits of technology and the BBC was concerned that they were 'over elaborate'. Test transmissions were made as the deadline for launch drew closer.

The Competition Begins
'Here's Looking at You', a variety programme was broadcast across London to the radio trade show RadiOlympia to test the new studios.

Helen McKay sang the title song, highlighting one issue with the picture image when her dress was considered too difficult to see and had to be adapted with the addition of a large corsage.

The flexible Emitron cameras allowed producer Cecil Madden to dramatically reveal the studio as the camera passed through a sequence of curtains.

Cecil Madden recalls Here's Looking at You

Further tests experimented with programming and launched the popular show 'Picture Page' offering variety entertainments, with an eclectic mix of short acts, presented by Joan Miller.

Joan Miller discusses Picture Page
Opening Night
After years of anticipation and months of preparation the BBC launched the world's first high-definition television service on 2nd November 1936.

EMI technician E.B White said of television: "We shall discover a new and unbearable disturbance of the modern peace, or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television".

A coin toss decided which system would go first. The Baird Company won, with Marconi-EMI repeating the programme later that afternoon.

Leslie Mitchell presented from the Baird spotlight studio; a pitch dark room which scanned a light across the presenter's face from an adjoining scanner booth, to be picked up by two photocells.

The room was so dark that Leslie Mitchell had to memorise the opening announcement, introducing dignitaries who gave commemorative speeches.

After the formal speeches television was ready to launch with a variety programme, bringing popular entertainment live to mass audiences.

The BBC television service proved to be a roaring success. Marconi-EMI won the competition and the BBC continued to experiment with the new medium until the Second World War interrupted the service.

As the opening night closed, the revolution in entertainment and communication was begun. From a small studio at Alexandra Palace television has spread to every corner of the globe.

Credits: Story

Images and documents reproduced with kind permission of the BBC

Curator: James White

With thanks:
Simon Vaughan, Alexandra Palace Television Society
Anna Arca
Jane Gatrell
Helen Shoenberg
Robert Seatter, BBC
John Escolme, BBC
Matthew Chipping, BBC

Credits: All media
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