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November 2, 1936 - the beginning of television

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November 19, 2009

The November 2, 1936, BBC broadcast using the Marconi-EMI system

The November 2, 1936, BBC broadcast using the Marconi-EMI system

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Although computers and the Internet have eaten away at the dominance of television, it remains the most popular form of entertainment and source of information in the world. And with the line between TV and computers blurring with the advent of Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) and devices like Apple TV it’s likely that television in one form or another will retain its crown for some time to come. Television is no longer limited to a big box sitting in the corner of the living room. It can be accessed on sexy, slim panels hung on a wall or on mobile phones while sitting on a train. In fact television is so pervasive today it can be hard to imagine life before it existed – but there was such a time, and it wasn’t even that long ago.

Although there were earlier television broadcasts, most notably of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the BBC broadcasts that commenced on November 2, 1936, from Alexandra Palace in London were heralded as the world’s first, public, regular, high-definition television broadcasts. It's estimated that about 500 television sets received this broadcast.

BBC television initially used two systems – the 240-line Baird intermediate film system and the 405-line Marconi-EMI system – each with its own broadcast studio.

Early television sets supported both systems, which were broadcast on alternating weeks for a trial period of six weeks. However, anyone used to 24-hour programming would have been left wanting with initial broadcasts limited to 3 – 4pm and 9 – 10pm Monday to Friday. The Baird system, which used a mechanical camera for filmed programming and Farnsworth image dissector cameras for live programming, proved too cumbersome and visually inferior and was dropped in February 1937.

The station was taken off air on September 1st, 1939; two days before Britain declared war on Germany, as it was feared the VHF transmissions would act as a beacon to enemy aircraft homing in on London. Over this period the transmitter found an alternative use jamming German bomber’s navigation systems and it is said that only 25 percent of London raids were effective because of these transmissions. The last program aired before television broadcasts were halted before the war was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, which was repeated 20 minutes after broadcasts resumed on June 7, 1946.

Alexandra Palace remained the BBC’s main transmitting center for London until 1956 and was the home base for the channel until the early 1950s when the majority of production moved into Lime Grove Studios, and then to the purpose-built BBC Television Center at White City in London in 1960, where the channel is still based today.

Unfortunately, like so much from the early days of television, very little remains from the November 2, 1939 broadcast – certainly no vision has survived. However an extraordinary library of original files, scripts, letters, diary entries and photographs collected by Donald Hunter Munro, who worked at the BBC as one of the world’s first television producers, went under the hammer in London earlier this year.

The historical archive was part of the Michael Bennet-Levy Early Technology Sale auction, which also contained the Steuart’s Patent vacuum tank regulator and Teleavia type P111 high definition television from 1958. The auction was held at Bonhams in Knightsbridge, London with the Donald Hunter Munro Television Archive fetching UKP3,000 (approx US$5,415 at the time of publication).

Michael Bennet-Levy runs us through a the production notes for the "opening ceremony" of TV as we know it.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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