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volume 1
july 1998

Crystal Palace Television Studios


  John Logie Baird and British television
  by Ray Herbert
  Between 1933 and 1936 the most extensive television complex in Europe was located beneath the main concourse at the Crystal Palace in London, a fact even then unknown to most people. The instigator was John Logie Baird and his company could claim with justification that no other organisation had the capability of providing from a single site live, high definition television broadcast transmitters, receivers, cathode ray tubes, microwave relay systems, photocells, magnetrons and telecline equipment. We are happy now to introduce what is probably the first serious appreciation of Baird's studios at Crystal Palace, certainly the most detailed yet. Ray Herbert has written it for us, so there is no need to say any more.

  "The existence of a fully-equipped television broadcasting station
in the Crystal Palace, which could act at any moment, was the great
surprise which Mr I.L. Baird sprang on the radio world yesterday.
It was known, of course, that the Baird Company used the
South Tower for experimental transmission but no one suspected
that 40,000 sq. ft. of this building had been converted into a
complete Television Broadcasting Station..."
(News Chronicle, Saturday, 2 February, 1935)
1 The studios of Crystal Palace. So little is known regarding the existence of television studios at the Crystal Palace that photographs taken there are sometimes attributed to Alexandra Palace. This is surprising as the Baird Company could claim with justification that their laboratory and studio complex beneath the main concourse of Sir Joseph Paxton's massive glass edifice in south London was the most extensive in Europe. J.L. (John Logie) Baird made an early start with the new medium of television. Already in April 1925 he held a demonstration for the pubic at Selfridges in London. In July 1933 his company moved to the Crystal Palace, occupying 40,000 sq. ft. of space under the south transept and adjoining the tunnel which connected the two distinctive towers designed, incidentally, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
  Left: Baird's first demonstration for the public was held at Selfridges in London, April 1925

At Crystal Palace Baird's company had three sizable studios, comprehensively equipped and acoustically isolated. The largest measured 60 ft. by 40 ft. and could accommodate full scale productions involving up to forty actors. A smaller studio employing a flying-spot disc scanner dealt with close-ups of single performers or announcers. Other facilities included telecine equipment, dressing rooms, generating plant, workshops, offices, sound and vision radio transmitters and laboratories. From the beginning of 1934 until mid-1935 the system operated 180 lines, considered at the time to be high definition (pre-war British Standard BS205 stated that this description applied to definition in excess of 100 lines).

2 Right: Baird's spacious Number One studio at Crystal Palace in December 1934. The central control room is at the bottom right under it. Click on the picture for a broader overview

Reaching the public. The Baird Company lost no time in getting the message across that they would soon be in a position to provide a public service. Demonstrations were given to the Prime Minister, BBC officials, the Post Office and press at Film House, Wardour Street, in March 1934. Every opportunity was taken of capturing the interest of the public. One ingenious example occurred at the fifth Annual General Meeting the same month when the shareholders were surprised at the absence of the chairman, Sir Harry Greer. He eventually appeared not in person but on a television screen and the Baird company report was delivered from a studio in the Crystal Palace. While he made his way back to the Wardour Street meeting place, the shareholders and the press enjoyed a variety show and excerpts from films.

  Left: Letter to Baird from Downing Street 10

To promote his case, Baird donated a television set to Downing Street 10. Thanking him for this "wonderful miracle" the Prime Minister wrote to him on April 5th, 1930: "Dear Mr Baird, I must thank you very warmly for this television instrument you have put into Downing Street. What a marvellous discovery you have made! ..." The letter was signed by James Ramsay MacDonald, who then held office.

  Right: Baird demonstrates reception of 30 line pictures, transmitted by the BBC, at his premises at Long Acre in 1930

From February until June 1935, over 42 programmes were transmitted from the studios to various demonstration locations in London. Well known theatrical personalities took part — Alma Taylor made frequent appearances, others included Vivian Foster, Leonard Henry and Claude Lampier with Bille Carlyle. True to the tradition established at Long Acre, the Baird staff had a supporting role providing boxing matches, sketches from the Cafe del Diablo set and carrying out announcing duties. Transmission from the Crystal Palace continued until the disastrous fire in November 1936.

3 Left: The recording of a boxing match

Equipments. One of the outbuildings to survive was the Rotunda, the subject of an interesting article by Kenn Kiss in the magazine of the Crystal Palace Foundation. His research reveals that it opened on 3rd. June 1881. Extensive alterations in 1911 included a gallery and when the Baird Company leased the premises in 1936 this area accommodated several research units. In the main body of the building the biggest television picture tubes available anywhere were manufactured.

  Right: The Bush mirrordrum receiver in 1933

Television Advisory Committee set up in April 1934, means had to be found of providing programmes having good entertainment value which meant dealing with groups of performers on a large stage. The flying-spot scanner (camera) could only cope with a small area of about 4 ft. square when operating at a definition of 180 lines. At that time (early in 1934) electronic cameras were still in the development stage and EMI had not yet produced any pictures of live objects using their Emitron tube. The only practical solution appeared to be the intermediate film process. This employed a cine camera using 5 mm film (split 35 mm stock for reasons of economy), developing and fixing the pictures immediately, typically within 30-50 seconds, and then passing them still wet through a telecline scanner.

  Interchangeable lenses enabled close-up shots to be obtained, fast film kept the lightning requirements to a reasonable level and the exposed material could be washed and dried for future use. There were some inherent disadvantages. Due to the processing time the sound had to be recorded on the film, resulting in a significant deterioration in quality. The equipment could only be used from a fixed position, the programme length depended upon the size of the film magazine and a soundproof booth proved necessary to contain the noise generated by the drive motors. For all that, it was a sophisticated piece of equipment and enabled ambitious productions to be presented at a time when no alternatives were available.
  Left: A Disc Televisor with the cover removed from it

Between February and June 1935, over forty transmitters were made to various demonstration locations in London. In November the first of the dual standard sets, the T5, made its appearance at the Press Club for a special 240-line transmission which featured Leonard Henry. As the BBC had closed down the 30-line service in September and the opening of Alexandra Palace was still twelve months away, these were the only examples of live television to be seen in the country.

4 Telecline and telerecording. On 19th August 1929, at the Baird Long Acre laboratories, the press witnessed for the first time talking films displayed on a television screen. Known then as Tele Talkies, they were produced by a continuous motion projector (Mechau) and scanned by a 30-hole disc. At the Crystal Palace telecline equipment figured prominently in the development programme. The early 180-line equipment used a scanning disc spinning at 3,000 rpm in a vacuum to avoid dust and air turbulence. A photocell was situated behind it. At a later stage tests were carried out using an electronic camera tube, the Farnsworth image dissector, for use in the telecline machines. Its considerable insensitivity did not matter for this type of application as any amount of light could be obtained from an arc lamp. Although free from shading (tilt and bend) and providing good detail in the shadows, it suffered from noise and geometric distortion.
  Mechanical scanning arrangements were resumed for the 240-line telecline machines used initially at Alexandra Palace. The possibility of recording television programmes on film received considerable attention and by the end of 1934 this had been achieved using high-intensity cathode-ray tube and 17.5 mm cine camera. Projection receivers had not yet arrived and by using the fast processing techniques already mentioned, the recorded television images could be developed, fixed, washed, dried and then projected on to a large screen all within about two minutes.
  Right: A kit version of the mirror-drum receiver in 1933

Baird's vision and sound transmitters were rather impressive. The vision transmitter operated at the high power of 10 kW on 42.8 MHz, quite a feat late in 1934. Designed and built at the Crystal Palace, unusual stapes had to be taken to avoid infringement of a Marconi patent on neutralising, a technique necessary with triode power amplifiers to prevent self oscillation. By using tetrode valves the need of this arrangement could be eliminated. It was decided to employ Metropolitan-Vickers constantly-pumped demountable tetrodes type 43, an entirely new departure for ultra short wave transmitters. MetroVick took a particular interest in this work and had one of their engineers on site for long periods during the trials. Two years later they obtained a contract from the Air Ministry for the supply of 19 radar transmitters to be used on the coastal chain and they bore a remarkable similarity to the Baird design. The sound occupied a separate channel on 35.3 MHz, using a 500 watt, amplitude-modulated transmitter. Both sound and vision aerials were attached to the top of the 275 ft. South Tower.

5 Left: A magazine advertisement in 1939 for the Palace de Luxe, a television set claimed to cause no eye strain

The fire and after. A most spectacular conflagration lit up the London skyline on the night of the 30th November 1936, when the Crystal Palace, together with the Baird complex, was burnt to the ground. Only the South Tower, the School of Arts and the Rontunda in the Palace Grounds survived. It represented a catastrophe for the company, only slightly eased by the insurance pay-out of 80,000 Pounds, about 1.8 million Pounds in today's money. Fortunately all the equipment purchased by the BBC for Alexandra Palace had been delivered six months earlier. The School of Arts had been producing the T5 mirror lid receiver during the past year and work on these continued. In the Rontunda 12, 15 and 22-inch diameter picture tubes were manufactured under the Cathovisor trade mark, in the gallery of this old building the vacuum physics department designed and produced split-anode magnetrons for the microwave-relay system, projection tubes capable of throwing a 13 ft. by 10 ft. television picture on a cinema screen and monoscopes (still picture tubes).

  There were two transmitters still in use at the South Tower. One on the fourth floor operated with a power of 200 watts on 150 MHz, the other radiated John Baird's colour television pictures between 1937 and 1939. He had a small studio at the bottom of the spiral staircase and occasionally the 120-line mirror drum colour camera would be trundled through a convenient gate nearby for televising the red trolleybuses on Anerley Hill.
  Right: Baird 120 line colour camera. Mirror drum used for the Dominion Theatre Demonstration in February 1938

On 4 February 1938, a demonstration of colour television was introduced as a surprise item at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London. At the evening performance 3,000 people watched pictures from the Crystal Palace on a 12 ft. by 9 ft. screen. Although fully reported in the national and technical press at te time, few people seem to be aware of this achievement which represented a triple first for John Logie Baird. It was the first time that colour television had been transmitted by radio link or demonstrated to the public in a theatre and never before had any outside scenes been televised in colour.

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