“What are the Wild Waves Saying?” 

7 December 2017 tbs.pm/14346

The Troubles of Simultaneous Broadcasting

By P. P. ECKERSLEY, Chief Engineer of the B.B.C.

From the Radio Times for 30 September to 6 October 1923

If you can telephone between London and Glasgow — and you can — it is obvious that if, instead of putting the telephone to your ear, you connect up to a wireless station in Glasgow, then whatever is said in London will be repeated in Glasgow by wireless. Wireless “broadcasts,” and if the whole population had receiving sets, then the one speaker in London would be heard by the one and a quarter millions of people of the second city of the Empire. Add Newcastle, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham. Bournemouth, Cardiff, and London, and a vast audience will be asking “What are the wild waves saying?”

Complicated!

This idea is not new, and I well remember when Captain Round and Mr. Ditcham, of the Marconi Company, were doing the original experiments on broadcast telephony down in Chelmsford, trying the idea out.

We put in from Marconi House, London, an ordinary trunk call to Chelmsford. We connected on to wireless at Chelmsford, and we listened by wireless in London. Thus, I sat down in a little room and talked to Captain Round vid this chain.

It may seem to many a complicated method of communication, inasmuch as he was about two yards from me, to have to yell down a telephone to Chelmsford, while 15 kilowatts at Chelmsford shrieked back at Captain Round in London. But scientific people are always doing silly things like that “to illustrate a principle.” Of course, thousands — well, perhaps hundreds, or, at any rate, a few people — were listening in Prague, Rome, Paris, and the Sanjak of Novi Bazaar, and they must have been as surprised and amused as we were to hear my beautiful voice suddenly interrupted by an impatient “another thrrree minutes, please.” But truly this happened!

Cross-Talk.

We have had quite an interesting time applying the system to our broadcast scheme. Somewhere about May we started some preliminary experiments, but we were early met with the trouble of “cross talk”; that is to say, the noises we made on the telephone lines were not confined to our own pair, but got mixed up with other lines. An irascible gentleman. I believe, tried to communicate between London and Manchester one night, but all he could hear was the last act of a Wagner opera rattling his ear-piece — another potential “listener” gone!

It wu amazing in those days to be up in the little room in Marconi House and to listen to the extraordinary number of sounds that could be picked up with a little intelligence and a pair of head ‘phones. Here were two terminals, and they were telling of the sorrows of Siegfried; here another two, and a voice, “If you’d get off the line a minute I could tell you what your strength is.” Another, “Five milli amps. No! sorry. I thought you were Cardiff. Oh! you’re the Marconi House transmitter’’ — or just, perhaps, another innocent two, which were connected to the ordinary broadcast, and one heard “how to sow potatoes in April.” There were ‘phones labelled Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham, and whenever one picked them up one always heard that Wagner opera. Certainly it was an uncanny jumble, and if it got on to aerial “listeners” must have been surprised at the sounds they beard.

Brighter Bulletins?

Time went on, and from out of chaos, late nights, and hard work from many engineers emerged at last a coherent system. Now there are many voices and many sounds, but each one is under control, and the trunk telephonists now know nothing of our activities and carry on their conversations unmolested.

Even now, at the beginning of regular things, little mistakes may occur, as, for instance, when an announcer not quite familiar with the ropes cried out in his agony (and with the switch open AND when he was connected to all stations): “What the ——– do I do now?”

Sometimes, too, lines may get crossed, and I thought I detected tho other night the London News Bulletin with obligato from Newcastle! Does this not suggest a bright idea to enliven the millibars? We might have the News Bulletin, to music chosen to suit the item, and broadcast as follows : —

(Announcer) “The Stock Exchange was very lively to-day (accom. from Glasgow, “The Campbells are coming. hurrah! hurrah!”), but the pound sterling declined by .0005 points in New, York (Valse Triste – Sibelius, from Cardiff, pace Corbitt-Smith) — Steel was firm (solo on tho triangle from the Sheffield relay station) — and so on.’’

Taking it Easy.

Talking of the experiments, I asked Mr. Litt — who has done such a lot towards making the scheme feasible — if he remembered anything amusing about the experiments. He says he remembers nothing amusing from his point of view (he has worked several all-night sittings!), but when he was at Newcastle during our first efforts, he remembers a message coming from London at 1.15: “Go off to lunch now and be back at 2 sharp.” Engineers, Post Office Supervisors, Station Directors plunged into taxi-cabs (this has since been deleted from the petty cash sheets), rushed to the nearest open lunch place (it was a Sunday), and were back with serious indigestion at 1.59½ and rang up. No reply till 3 o’clock, when a happy voice from London announced the beginning of the next tests. What it is to be in London!

Captain Eckersley among his pets – the switches for simultaneous broadcasting – in the experimental room.

London Leads.

And now we have got our stations all connected up, so that we have but to change our mind with a slight click in London when the crystal user in Milngavie (I bet no Sassenach gets the right pronunciation) or the one valve enthusiast in Inverbervie (no catch) knows it for a fact. Thus, what London thinks to-day, the British Isles (at least, the intelligent members who are wireless enthusiasts) think simultaneously. Not only this, but any provincial station can be broadcast to any or all of the rest. In fact, the permutations and combinations possible are enormous.

If relay stations, little baby stations that repeat all that the big near-by brother is saying, get going, one voice may in time operate a hundred stations. Perhaps the Continent will be linked up, and in the end we shall all have to go to school again to learn Radioese, so that we can understand International Radio easily!


Captain Peter Pendleton Eckersley (1892-1963) was the British Broadcasting Company’s first chief engineer. He remained with the Company and the successor British Broadcasting Corporation until 1929, when his divorce and an indiscrete affair came to Sir John Reith’s attention and he was sacked. He went on to work for the International Broadcasting Company and became, if not an actual fascist, then at least a fellow traveller, counting the odious Oswald Moseley amongst his friends. His reputation has not recovered.

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