First Reports 

1 August 2001

The true birth of television is hard to pin down. You can look at 2 November 1936 when the world’s first regularly scheduled high-definition television service began from Alexandra Palace.

You can look back to the medium-definition service some years earlier originating from the Nazi-controlled German Post Office.

You could go much further back and look at Baird’s initial experiments, or the developments by Zworkin or Farnsworth. Or you could look at the BBC’s broadcasts using the Fultograph process – an early form of fax transmissions and a useful cover for the early experiments in radar.

But 22 August 1932 is possibly the best contender for the true start of television. On this day, the BBC took over the Baird laboratory and began radiating pictures from Broadcasting House.

Those 30-line pictures are, to modern eyes, practically unwatchable. The vertical scanning is obvious and tiring to stare at. The low fidelity of the picture – broadcast over medium wave – makes everything indistinct. You can tell you are watching a face, but it is difficult to see where eyes end and noses begin.

But for all this, the promise was clearly there. With the backing of the world’s first broadcaster, the new process of television was not likely to fade. It was a rich-man’s plaything, or the hobby of an early ‘anorak’, but the potential could be seen even then.

Despite (or because of, depending on your point of view) the clanking disc and the whirr of the drive belt, the unbelievable was happening. Pictures from one part of London could be seen in another instantaneously. This was, at the time, scarcely less amazing than being told today that teleportation had been achieved.

The BBC did not by any stretch throw money at the new medium. But it did throw in what the early lookers-in most required – engineers. BBC engineers gave up their free time to ‘tinker’ with the new invention, improving quality, developing new ideas and pushing the ‘box’ in new direction. Each day’s broadcasts brought new refinements in cameras, lighting, transmitters, microphones – the things that made this flickering picture the size of a cigarette packet possible.

A direct line can be traced from 22 August 1932 to 2 November 1936, when the 240-line/405-line alternating-weeks system launched. From 1932 we can see BBC engineers final commit to television, and to begin to treat the new medium not as a poor relation to radio but its eventual successor. With BBC engineering brains behind it, television would be here to stay. How it would be used would be up to the programme-makers of later generations.

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