Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
TV Technology 5. Magic Rays of Light by Richard G. Elen


The inauguration of the BBC Television Service, broadcast using the Baird system, 2 November 1936

Inauguration of BBC Television Service, broadcast using Baird system, 2 November 1936

While there had been several thousand owners of Baird's now-useless 30-line Televisors, there were very few of the new VHF Band I receivers - which had to be able to receive both the Baird transmissions and those from the EMI system, ultimately to become CCIR System A - and they cost between £100 and £150, a lot of money in 1936.

As a result it was perhaps only about 400 'lookers-in' (one newspaper ran a competition to choose a name for a television viewer: this was the winner) who were able to see the official Opening Ceremony beginning at 3pm on 2 November 1936, with speeches by the Postmaster General, the Chairman of the BBC and Lord Selsdon. On the toss of a coin, the system to open the service was Baird Television Ltd's (BTL), which, from the evidence of an existing photograph (above), appears to have used a Farnsworth 'electron' camera for the opening ceremony. In an alteration to the programme schedule published in the Radio Times, the variety show and the opening ceremony that preceded it were immediately repeated from the Marconi-EMI studios.

The show that followed the speeches, called 'Variety', was apparently not unlike 'Here's Looking at You', the programme broadcast in the earlier tests to Radiolympia. Among the music it featured a song called 'Television', with lyrics by James Dyrenforth and music by Kenneth Leslie-Smith. It was sung by musical comedy star Adele Dixon, accompanied by the BBC Television Orchestra conducted by Hyam Greenbaum and, even if the show as a whole was reportedly little more than a copy of the Radiolympia demonstration programme, the memorable song itself certainly outshone the previous work:

A mighty maze of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blue,
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring a new wonder to you
The busy world before you is unfurled -
Its songs, its tears and laughter, too.
One by one they play their parts
In this latest of the Arts
To bring new enchantment to you.
As by your fireside you sit,
The news will flit,
As on the silver screen.
And just for entertaining you
With something new
The stars will then be seen. So...
There's joy in store
The world is at your door -
It's here for everyone to view
Conjured up in sound and sight
By the magic rays of light
That bring Television to you.

The new BBC Television Service had begun. Widely regarded as the first high-definition television service in the world, the truth of this description depends on your definition of 'high definition'. It is usually said to be at least 240 lines and at least 25 images per second - the definition of the BTL system of the time. Unfortunately, the BBC, in a publication the previous year, had told how "Herr Eugen Hadamovsky, Director-General of the German Broadcasting Service, opened the world's first regular high-definition television service on Friday, 22 March" [1935]. The German system was 180-line, not so different from BTL's 240. However, the 405-line, 50-field interlaced performance of the Marconi-EMI system was a tremendous advance in comparison, and in this regard there is no doubt that Britain led the world in high-definition television. By contrast, the USA had no regular television services at this time, though numerous tests had been broadcast using low-definition mechanical scanning, and NBC was planning an electronic system with over 300 lines; the Soviet Union was running a regular service - but it was 30-line with whirling discs - and in France there were tests of 180-line, 25-frame mechanical scanning.

The BBC Television Service's broadcast hours were limited by budgets and as a result of technical considerations. But there were other reasons too. Director of Television Gerald Cock believed that broadcasting hours should be limited and interrupted frequently for health reasons. "To avoid eye strain," he wrote in 1936, "there should be interval signals between individual programmes, lasting not more than half a minute. These intervals should be marked by means of a modern clock, the dimension of whose face should be roughly the same as the dimensions of the received picture." Cock envisaged the television broadcast day as including around four hours of programming.

The intention had been to evaluate the relative performance of the two transmission systems in April 1937, but with the Baird system suffering continuing inferior performance and unreliability, as indicated in a somewhat damning report by Cock in December, the decision was made more rapidly. The Television Advisory Committee meeting of 16 December 1936 decided to abandon the Baird system in favour of the Marconi-EMI system. Discussions with the two parties on implementing the decision were extended, but the last Baird transmission ultimately went out on 30 January 1937.

It was the second major blow for Baird in as many months. Less than a month after the launch at Alexandra Palace, disaster had struck in South London. On the evening of Monday, 30 November 1936, fire had broken out in the Crystal Palace main building and spread rapidly to engulf the majority of the site, including the BTL facility. The Crystal Palace, with the exception of the water towers and outlying buildings, had been completely destroyed.

The general view of the press was that the apparent competition between the two systems was a good thing. However, BBC and Post Office staff, much closer to the day-to-day operation of the station, thought differently - and had done for some considerable time - as did receiver manufacturer Cossor, which had monitored technical signal quality since the first test transmissions and had concluded that the Baird mechanical scanning system was markedly inferior, and had even degraded slightly since the opening as a result of maintenance issues. It seems likely that BTL had put such pressure on the Selsdon committee, the Postmaster General and the BBC - including impressing the Prime Minister with a demonstration - that the committee had little choice but to include the Baird system in the BBC Television Service, at least to give it a chance to prove itself in action. Yet as early as 1934, BBC engineers had seen the embryonic EMI system and been impressed, noting that it represented "far and away a greater achievement as anything [they had] ever seen in television". Programme planner Cecil Madden, quoted in Bruce Norman's Here's Looking at You, put it this way: "Working in the Baird studio was a bit like using Morse code when you knew that next door you could telephone."

The BBC Television Service continued for three years, and the number of viewers rose rapidly to around the 23,000 mark despite the relatively high cost of sets, spurred on no doubt by the first major Outside Broadcast, the Coronation of George VI on 12 May 1937. Finally the Alexander Palace transmitter was closed down for the duration of the war on the afternoon of September 1 1939, lest it should act as a beacon for enemy bombers.

It is often suggested that the British government was primarily interested in the establishment of a pre-war high-definition television service as a cover for the development of cathode ray tubes and other technology vital to the introduction of radar, a technology crucial to survival in the Battle of Britain. Although this view does assume a significant amount of prescience on the part of the powers that be, there may be some truth in it. Certainly, there is no doubt that many of those involved in television before the war, from both BTL and Marconi-EMI, went on to make important contributions to radar development. The Chain Home radar system, for example, used transmitters that bore strong similarities to the Metropolitan-Vickers design that had been developed for Baird Television's Crystal Palace vision transmitter - later used by BTL at Alexandra Palace - that avoided Marconi patents on triode neutralisation by using tetrode valves.

Related Articles

Seeing by Wireless

Baird and the early experiments with television

Television on the Air

Baird and the BBC in uneasy alliance

High Definition

Baird v. Marconi-EMI: the rivals line up

Here's Looking at You

The BBC begins test transmissions

Magic Rays of Light

The new BBC Television Service greets its small audience

The 'Color War'

US television points the way to the colour future

An Independent Air

The beginning of the multi-channel age

Britain in Colour - and UHF

1960s technological revolutions

The Digital Age

Digital broadcasting via cable, satellite and terrestrial

Roll VTR

Broadcast video recording from Phonovision to DigiBeta