Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
The British Broadcasting Corporation
web site is: www.bbc.co.uk
Book: On Air - A History of BBC Transmission
Review published by Prospero*
in October 2003
Review published by Prospero*
in October 2003
*The newspaper for retired BBC staff
written by Henry Price, formerly Head of BBC Engineering Information Department
75 Years of BBC Transmission
BBC Transmission was born as a part of the BBC in 1922 when radio was still very much the realm of the hobbyist and experimenter. Both the programme making and transmission arms grew rapidly in professionalism and expertise, so that within just a few short years the BBC was already established as a national institution.
The range of BBC Transmission’s activities expanded as technology developed and as the BBC sought new audiences and created new services: international radio in the 1930s, television in the 1940s and 50s, colour TV in the 1960s and 70s, and digital services in the 1980 and 90s. Throughout this period BBC Transmission was at the forefront of developing new technology to deliver these exciting new services to the listeners and viewers.
In “On Air” Norman Shacklady and Martin Ellen chart the history of BBC Transmission through the memories and contributions of some 57 people. The book covers the period from the organisation’s inception in 1922 until its privatisation in 1997. Seventy five years – a lifetime, as Martin Ellen reminds in his preface to the book. This was a lifetime packed with technological development and rich with human endeavour, and the book deals with both these aspects of the story.
The first six sections, roughly half the book, chart the history of BBC Transmission in a concise and methodical way. Starting with the early days of domestic radio, when each transmitter had its own unique identity, the story moves smartly through events following a time and technological pathway. Domestic radio is followed by international radio, then television, automation and finally a section on associated BBC departments.
The second half of the book is devoted to reminiscences of some of the people that made it all possible. This is the real charm of the book – human history presented in a down to earth and unabridged fashion. Each story is special in its own right and each one gives the reader a glimpse into the past in a way that the facts and figures simply cannot. There are 27 contributions in total in this section of the book. Here is a small selection of items to give a flavour of the topics covered:
In E C P Metcalfe’s piece we join the War Reporting Unit during 1944/45 as it follows the allied forces advance into occupied Europe. Struggling against transport difficulties, the unit moves with the troops as they advance from France to Belgium and Holland and then over the Rhine into Germany. No sat-phones then off course, so the story is dominated by the logistics of keeping the convoy of transmitter, generator, workshop and studio in operation and on the move.
Norman Shacklady tells how another conflict – the Falklands War – affected the BBC transmitting station on the remote Atlantic island of Ascension. How the peace and solitude of the volcanic island was suddenly shattered by arrival of the UK task Force, filling a once empty ocean with ships. The airstrip, which normally handled 3 or 4 flights a week, was now suddenly having to handle 100 aircraft movements a day. All this activity stretched the BBC’s resources to the limit, especially the supply of desalinated water and beer!
From Dick Skyrme we learn how transmitter maintenance in the 1940s could include dismantling, repairing and then reconstructing the transmitter’s main output valve. Apparently getting the valve’s internal parts replaced was the easy part, the hard part was re-establishing the vacuum. This involved the long and rather tedious process of resealing the joints with a sealant called “Apiezion Q”. Often the vacuum could not be achieved and then more sealant had to be applied often to the now hot valve. The result was sore hands and thumbs. Needless to say this was not a popular maintenance task.
No history of a BBC Transmission would be complete without the story of a mast failure and in this case we learn of the collapse of Emley Moor, which fittingly belonged to the ITA. Peter Pearson tells how on a cold night in March, 1969 the mast collapsed under the weight of accumulated ice. The sole BBC engineer on duty at Emley Moor was telephoned from Holme Moss to ask why the BBC’s TV services had gone off the air. “The mast had fallen down” he reported. “What all of it?” enquired Holme Moss incredulously. After a brief foray outside, the engineer confirmed that indeed only 20 ft of the 1265 ft mast was now standing!
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