Your first set 

1 February 2005


It’s early 1950: what’s it like to buy your first television set?

Over five short decades, the TV set has seamlessly integrated itself into our homes and our lives. We may not think of television consciously throughout the day, but many of our day-to-day conversations or social arrangements revolve around what we have seen, or hope to view later – even in today’s multichannel, PVR world where few people watch the same programmes and many timeshift.

Most of us no longer express any wonder at the ability to see, in our own homes, events from around the world – in colour as they happen. Yet just over 50 years ago, the television set itself was often a newsworthy item in its own right, when generous benefactors provided hospitals with their first set. As so many people in their 40s cannot remember a home without a television – albeit originally in black and white and with fewer channels – it is difficult to imagine what sort of experience it was to be amongst the first owners of a television set.

So let us try and put ourselves in the early part of 1950 and imagine that first purchase.

The first requirement when purchasing a television set is to be within range of a transmitter. The B.B.C. Television Service that launched in late 1936 was the first of its kind in the world, and no doubt expansion of the area covered by its transmitters would have begun earlier than late 1949, had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War; the television service was suspended between September 1939 and June 1946.

By the early part of 1950, the two working transmitters were Alexandra Palace (serving London and surrounding areas) and the new Sutton Coldfield transmitter (serving Birmingham and the surrounding areas). Initially, the requirement for good reception of a picture was to be within a nominal radius of about twenty five miles of the transmitter, but post-war modifications had effectively doubled this range, and it wasn’t unusual for a reasonable picture to be received considerably further afield: the B.B.C.’s estimate of transmitter range was always conservative. Sutton Coldfield benefited from a much higher aerial location and a considerably more powerful transmitter than Ally Pally.

Further transmitters were in the course of commission, with the expectation that 80% of the population would be in range of a transmitter by the end of 1954.

So let us assume that we are in range of a good transmitter.

A television ‘receiver’ is an expensive luxury, and it is recommended that selection and purchase be made from appointed dealers, whose engineers have attended manufacturers’ training schools. They can provide the necessary after-sales care in case of any faults or breakdowns of what is a relatively complicated receiver, which had many parts, which could, and often did, suffer early failure. New sets are expensive, too, but if you wish, the opportunity to rent one for a reasonable weekly amount is becoming increasingly popular.

Your chosen dealer is also able to advise on the type and optimum location for the new aerial. If you are close to the transmitter, it might be possible to use an indoor set-top aerial, but a roof-mounted antenna (possibly in conjunction with an amplifier if you are approaching the edge of the transmitter range in normal circumstances) will provide the best possible reception – and, in addition, will helpfully inform your neighbours that you have invested in the new technology. It is wise to invest in the best aerial available to get the maximum benefit out of the receiver: advice which is as true today as it was then. A dealer is also best placed to install the set and aerial, and explain its operation in your home.

Now the new receiver is in the house, what would you expect to receive? And how difficult is it to use it?

At this time, multiple channels are things of the future, with only the B.B.C. transmitting television over limited hours. Daily, apart from Sundays, a demonstration film is transmitted between 11 and 12 o’clock, which is mainly intended for dealers, for demonstration or installation purposes. There is a further hour or so from 3 p.m., except on Sunday, when a children’s programme is transmitted between 5 and 6 p.m., and then there is a further break in transmissions until the evening’s programmes start between 8 and 8.30, finishing by 11p.m.

Once installed, the set is relatively simple to operate, with many sets having main controls on the front or side, consisting simply of an on/off switch combined with volume control, and a further two controls for picture brightness and contrast. The back of the receiver typically has more technician-orientated controls – carefully recessed and fiddly to adjust – for the adjustment of picture focus, height and width, and line hold and frame hold, but once installed and set up, these should rarely require adjustment. When the set is turned on – often some 5 or so minutes ahead of the programme commencing to allow it to warm up – viewing commands your full attention.

To enable the best results for viewing, the B.B.C transmits a test signal for four minutes preceding each programme, to give the viewer time for the set to warm up and to adjust the set correctly.

BBC TS Tuning Signal

The B.B.C.’s own instructions for adjusting the set to the test signal read as follows:

” The clock should, of course, be a true circle. If not, the controls for the height and width of the picture should be adjusted, taking care that the edges of the caption, represented by the rectangular black patches, are not lost by expanding the height and width too much. The vertical lines in the clock centre should be brought about as clearly as possible by the focus control.

” The wavy patterns on each side enable the tonal range of the picture to be adjusted. The best way of doing this is to start by turning the ‘brightness’ up slowly until there is a barely visible glow on the screen. Next, the contrast control should be turned clockwise until the topmost ‘waves’ are white and the waves immediately below them are light grey. Now adjust the brightness control again so the bottom waves are black and the ones above them are dark grey. Finally, make a slight re-adjustment to the contrast control to get the best contrast between the white and light grey ‘waves’.

” This step-by-step method of setting the brightness and contrast controls is recommended because their effects on the picture are inter-dependant. If they are not set correctly, the brightness control will need re-adjusting whenever the overall brightness of the scene changes.”

Television screen sizes of sets available are considerably smaller than we are used to today, and complaints regarding the small size of the picture are often dismissed as being the result of viewing in less than optimum conditions. It is recommended that for receivers with nine inch picture tubes, the optimum viewing distance from the screen is about four feet, and for a fifteen inch tube, about six feet, with nothing being gained by viewing from a closer position. It is also recommended that the set should be placed in the room with its back to the window, to aid viewing in daylight without the need to close the curtains.

The impact of television in the home for the British population of the 1950s should not be underestimated. Previously, it was only possible to see such images through visits to the theatre or cinema, but now this medium brought the outside world in pictures and sound into your home, making it feel as though you were there yourself, with the announcers and presenters speaking not to a general audience but seemingly directly to you: a much more personal experience.

Although we may now expect, rather than wonder at, the images we can receive in our own homes 24 hours a day, television remains a talking point – not because it is new, but because it provides that “did you see” moment to start a conversation. It is easy to see that due to the impact television made, even with so few hours broadcast each week, the demand for more was there, leading to an expansion in transmission times, as broadcasting regulations were relaxed over the following decades.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Alan George Keeling 8 May 2013 at 7:51 pm

Great article, no mention of “Test Card C”.

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