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Developing television

aird Oustside Broadcast van at first televised Derby, 1931

Television begins in Britain (1930) : the man with a flower in his mouth

In 1929 the BBC began regular television transmissions using Baird's mechanical system and in July 1930 it transmitted Pirandello's play 'The Man with a Flower in His Mouth' in 30 lines of resolution. When a change of scene was required, a screen was held before the camera while the actors exchanged seats. The Derby was televised in June 1931 - a camera waited at the finish line until the moment when the horses and jockeys passed by. There were approximately 29 televisions in Britain at this time, most of them built from kits. By August 1932 the BBC was transmitting television four days a week.

Baird system transmitting the first BBC broadcast, 1929

Baird Television loses the race (1932) : a momentous meeting

By the summer of 1932 Baird's financial backers began to insist he look into the electronic television of Philo Farnsworth. When Farnsworth travelled to England, raising money for his legal battles with RCA and EMI, he met Baird and demonstrated his system. Baird argued the superiority of his system with Farnsworth, but after watching several minutes of cathode ray tube television left the room without a word.

Baird's sponsors gave Farnsworth $50,000 (equivalent to about $650,000 today) to supply Baird with electronic television equipment. But in November 1936 a fire destroyed the Baird Company's Crystal Palace studios and production facilities.

Television rehersals at Alexandra Palace, 1946

Modern TV broadcasts begin (1936) : into the Electronic Age

By 1936 the BBC was ready to switch to an electronic TV system. Two systems were under consideration, one from Baird and the other from EMI. Both were predominantly British in concept but each used elements from American designers.

In August 1936 the BBC transmitted the first high-definition television signal from Alexandra Palace using the EMI and Baird systems alternately. Many executives and technicians were invited to the studio on opening day.

John Logie Baird showed up late and was left wandering the halls of Alexandra Palace, shut out from the studios and unable to celebrate the technology he had helped to develop. The BBC's final television transmission using Baird's Intermediate Film system was in February 1937, after which the Baird company confined its activities to making TV receivers and experimental equipment.

Dominating the north London skyline for over 125 years, Alexandra Palace was an entertainment venue known as 'The People's Palace'.

During the summer of 1936 it first played host to a new form of entertainment that would come to dominate our lives when the world's first high-definition television programmes were broadcast from here. From 1936, the BBC leased the palace's east wing as their television studio and transmitter site.

On its hilltop Alexandra Palace was the ideal location for the 220ft high aerial tower, which could transmit to all of London and most of the surrounding counties. The BBC continued to use 'Ally Pally' as a production centre until 1980.

Unfortunately a fire in 1980 caused extensive damage to the building, although the area the BBC had occupied by was not affected. It was almost bulldozed into the ground but, after a public inquiry, the site was reopened in 1988 to become one of London's premier exhibition venues.

Colour TV poster

Television moves into the UHF band (1967) : it's in colour!

The first generation of electronic TV in Britain was in black and white, operating on 405 lines in the very high frequency (VHF) waveband. But as the 1960s dawned, it became clear that these technologies and channels could not support the enhanced colour TV systems then being developed.

In the USA, the National Television Standards Committee had already settled on a colour television process based on 525 lines, the NTSC system. In France, the SECAM system was developed, whilst Britain and Germany preferred a different 625-line system called Phase Alternate Line (PAL), which was technically the best of the three, although more elaborate.

Britain moved to colour television broadcasting in two stages. First, the UHF 625-line service was launched, with the creation of a third channel BBC2 in April 1964. BBC2 broadcast in black and white, with occasional colour transmissions. It made the full switch to colour in July 1967, by which time the other two channels were also transmitting in UHF 625 as well.

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