Video recording is not new. In fact it goes back a very long way.
We think of video recording, and particularly video discs, as a relatively modern invention. We might recall quadraplex VTRs, home VCRs, and perhaps the 12-inch, analogue Laservision videodiscs. And of course, we are no doubt familiar with today’s DVD-Video format.
Before the development of the VTR in the 1950s, there was a way of recording TV images, with the aid of a specially-modified film camera synchronised to the television picture: the Kinescope. But this was not the earliest method of recording 'video'. For that we have to go back to the very dawn of television itself – and we have a gentleman by the name of Donald F McLean to thank for the fact that we have even heard of it.
Baird’s ‘Phonovision’ discs
John Logie Baird, the genius who made practical television a reality with spinning Nipkow discs and the Flying Spot scanner, also devised a method of recording his 30-line experimental television pictures: a technique he named Phonovision. Baird made a series of recordings, of which five remain, between 20 September 1927 and 28 March 1928. They show such subjects as Baird’s ventriloquist’s dummy head, ‘Stookie Bill’, a man’s head (that of Walter "Wally" Fowlkes, the first human to be recorded on video) and a woman referred to as ‘Miss Pounsford’ (see actual image, right).
Looking at the discs, which are standard 78 rpm Columbia Graphophone Company lacquers, it is noticeable that there are radial striations across the disc (left), indicating that the Nipkow scanning disc was synchronised to the Phonovision disc rotation. Apparently, at least on one occasion (for the Pounsford disc) the cutting lathe turntable was directly connected to the shaft driving the Nipkow disc that collected light from an illuminated object in the ‘studio’ (see below). On other occasions, standard audio disc cutting equipment was probably used.
Although Phonovision recording was discussed at the time, and Baird in 1926 applied for a patent (granted in 1928) on a playback device called the ‘Phonovisor’, he never publicly played back any of the recordings, and it is quite likely that he did not do so because of the low quality of the results. In his memoirs he noted that while he could play the images back, “the quality was so poor that there seemed no hope of competing with the cinematograph”. Thanks to modern DSP technology and McLean’s painstaking work, the contents of these and other videodiscs from the 1930s can now be viewed and appreciated.
Mechanical and electrical resonances in the equipment were a particular problem, and the shaft from the Nipkow disc to the cutting lathe went via a universal joint that produced additional distortion. In addition, lenses in the 30-lens (one per line) Nipkow disc were misaligned, causing errors in the scanning.
The images follow the standard 7:3 portrait aspect ratio for Baird’s 30-line mechanical scanning system, with the lines scanned vertically. Curiously the images were scanned from left to right, while Baird’s transmitted system used right to left scanning. The discs captured three frames for every revolution of the disc, meaning that Baird was recording at a rate of four frames per second (the 1930s BBC 30-line service used 12.5 frames per second).
The ‘Silvatone’ disc
In 1996, Eliot Levin of Symposium Records transcribed all known Phonovision discs for the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, and during the process discovered that a friend of his had a mysterious aluminium disc (above) marked enigmatically, ‘Television 1933’. An audio transcription of the disc was passed to Don McLean who was able to restore the content.
The disc had been recorded on a gramophone fitted with an ingenious home (audio) disc recording attachment called the ‘Cairmor’, (see right and below) made by Cairns & Morrison Ltd of London and sold in the 1930s for four pounds, twelve shillings. The recording kit came with six aluminium ‘Silvatone’ double-sided blank discs – new ones cost fourpence – that could be recorded, once only, with a steel needle in a special recording head. An arm was mounted across the disc platter and attached to the centre spindle, to provide drive for a lead screw that allowed the recording head to spiral in towards the centre of the disc as it rotated. To play the discs back, you used a fibre needle on the normal gramophone pickup. The recording assembly was designed to connect to your radio's loudspeaker output, using the radio as an amplifier, for example to allow the included microphone to be used – but it could equally record radio programmes.
One owner of this system, a man living in Ealing, West London, captured transmitted images from the BBC's 30-line television service. This was possible because the Baird system transmissions were of sufficiently low bandwidth that they were transmitted on ordinary AM medium wave. In fact many Televisor owners bought the cheaper unit that employed your existing radio receiver instead of having one built in.
On the disc was a segment from the first-ever television revue, essentially an early ‘television special’ called ‘Looking In’, featuring dancing from the Paramount Astoria Girls (actual image, right) and broadcast after the National Programme had closed down for the night from Daventry, from 11:12 to 11:53pm on 21 April 1933.
The ‘Programme as Broadcast’ log for that night recorded:
Television Transmission by the Baird Process
(Vision 261.6m; Sound 398.9m)
"LOOKING IN" specially written by John Watt
Music by Harry S Pepper
Produced by Eustace Robb in conjunction
with the Author and Composer
The Paramount Astoria Girls
Doris Arnold (pianoforte), J Hanrahan(Drums),
S Kneale-Kelley (Violin), J Romano (Saxophone)
The ‘Major Radiovision’ disc
The most common videodisc of the period (see label, above) was made by the ‘Major Radiovision’ company and sold through Selfridges. It is a double-sided 10-inch test disc, made available in quantity for Televisor owners to use to set up and adjust their sets: you would probably have played back the disc prior to a transmission and tweaked the set accordingly, to be ready for the start of a broadcast. The disc contains more or less the same set of cartoon-like images on each side plus a test pattern (shown below, restored and corrected). Unfortunately the disc would have been seriously compromised as a test disc by what appears to be a 5kHz cutter-head resonance.
The Marcus Games discs
One other set of recordings is known to exist. They are believed to have been recorded in East London during the period 1932-5 by one Marcus Games. Interestingly, Marcus Games, it now turns out, was the brother of Abram Games, the famous graphic designer responsible for the BBC Television Service animated Symbol that first aired twenty years later.
Like the Silvatone disc, these discs, recorded on an unusual 100-120 rpm cutting lathe (above), contain images from the BBC’s 30-line television service originating in a studio in Portland Place, produced by this time with a mirror-drum flying-spot scanner (which emitted a scanning beam of light: reflected light from the scene was picked up by photocells in a curious inversion of the way in which modern television cameras work) that superseded the earlier Nipkow discs. The recorded programme segments appear to include three female singers, one of whom is Betty Bolton, and one male singer. There’s also a puppet show.
Thanks to over two decades of restoration work by Donald McLean, those of us who live in the DVD age can recapture not only the feeling of early television but also actual content broadcast by the BBC’s 30-line service, albeit at rather lower quality than viewers would have seen the original broadcasts, due to losses in the recording system.
• Donald McLean has established a web site, TV Dawn, where you can view and read in detail about all the recordings described briefly in this article. In addition, he has recently released a double CD set, The Dawn of Television Remembered – the John Logie Baird Years 1923-1936, made possible by a grant from the Shiers Trust. The discs include a 120-minute audio documentary narrated by Richard Baker containing many interviews with Baird staff members. In addition there are extensive extras including unedited interviews, the video content of all the videodiscs mentioned in this article, excerpts from the 1967 ILEA 30-line re-make of Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth (the first television play), the script of the documentary, McLean’s original article on Phonovision restoration from 1985, and two PDF versions of Bruce Norman’s 1984 book on early television, Here’s Looking at You. The CD set is available from the web site and from other sources.
Many thanks to Donald McLean for the information contained in this article and for permission to use the illustrations, the majority of which are copyright Donald McLean. The illustrations should not be reprinted unless clearance has been given by the copyright holder.