Once upon a time… 

15 August 2001 tbs.pm/3168

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It is common knowledge that radio broadcasting began in the UK under the auspices of the BBC. The cognoscenti even know that at that time those initials stood for British Broadcasting Company – but what of radio’s pre-history… how was that point reached?

When broadcasting began, in the early 1920s, radio communication had already been around for 20 years or so as ‘wireless telegraphy’ – a means of sending Morse code where a wired connection was impossible.

However, transmitters did exist that could radiate continuous waves, and in 1906 a Canadian engineer named R.A. Fessenden, transmitted several programmes of speech and music from a transmitter at Brant Rock in Massachusetts on 80kHz.

‘Radio telephony’ was made possible by the development of the thermionic valve during World War 1, and early in the war French military scientists applied new vacuum techniques to produce a triode (three electrode) valve which came to be known as the ‘R’ valve. In some ways it resembled a light-bulb and it was mass-produced in electric-lamp factories. By 1918 one French factory was making 1000 valves a day and from 1916 it was also made in Britain.

As the war ended two people were on record as having foreseen that radio telephony could enable entertainment to be broadcast to the general public. In America David Sarnoff, later head the Radio Corporation of America, envisaged a transmitter radiating a variety of programmes on several different wavelengths, while Arthur Burrows, who was to be involved in British broadcasting right fom the start, made a similar prophecy but was concerned that intervals in the programme might be “filled with audible advertisements … on behalf of somebody’s soap or tomato ketchup.”

As war-time restrictions were relaxed, pre-war amateurs were joined by men who had encountered radio in the services and now took it up as a hobby. Thus radio telephony began to take over from wireless telegraphy as their main interest.

Amateurs had to be licensed by the Post Office, who had absolute control over radio communication. Licences to operate receivers were granted quite freely but transmitters were restricted to a power of 10 Watts and could only be operated by those who could “satisfy the Post Office that their qualifications, apparatus, knowledge of the subject and objects, are sufficiently good to justify the grant.” Those objects, the Post Office told them, should be “scientific research or general public utility” and music should be transmitted only for test purposes, but naturally the more extrovert livened-up their transmissions by reading amusing newspaper articles and playing gramophone records or even musical instruments, to the delight of their listeners!

Early in 1920 the Marconi Company began transmitting speech from Chelmsford on 2750 metres, to test the long-distance propagation of radio telephony. When the engineers tired of reading from Bradshaw’s railway timetable they too substituted records and recitals by local musicians and reports of reception increased dramatically.

Newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe saw a unique opportunity for publicity, and on 15 June sponsored the broadcast of a 30-minute recital by Dame Nellie Melba, giving it heavy coverage in his Daily Mail. Reception was reported from all over Europe.

Further transmissions of music from Chelmsford took place throughout the summer but they met with increasing criticism, particularly from the armed forces, for interfering with legitimate services and the Post Office was obliged to act. They stopped issuing authorizations, and granted only a handful during the whole of 1921. This was a severe blow to the amateurs, who relied on the transmissions to cheek and calibrate their equipment.

Throughout 1921 the Post Office enforced an almost total ban on radio-telephony. However, in December, 64 societies representing amateurs from all parts of Great Britain submitted a petition to the Post Office and the Post Office allowed the Marconi Company to include fifteen minutes of telephony in the weekly half-hour already being radiated as a calibration transmission for amateurs. However, for three minutes in every ten the engineers still had to suspend transmission and listen on their own wavelength, so that they could be instructed to close down if they were interfering with a government or commercial station!

Meanwhile, news was reaching Britain of the spectacular growth of radio broadcasting in America, creating a seemingly insatiable demand for receivers and components. British companies were understandably eager to promote a similar bonanza here, and it was time for Britain to show the world how to organize broadcasting in an orderly manner.

For five months, while press and parliament grumbled at the delay, the Post Office met with a committee representing commercial interests but struggled to reconcile conflicting interests. There was haggling about how broadcasting was to be paid for, but at last it was agreed that a company to be known as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was to be set up, having eight stations (six with Marconi transmitters) located in the main centres of population.

Listeners would buy an annual licence costing 10s (50p) and only permitting the use of receivers made by members of the BBC; the receivers were to carry a distinctive label. Half the licence-fee would go to the BBC, and a co-operative. Receivers would carry two tariffs: one, charged on the receiver’s various components, would go to the BBC; the other, amounting to 12s 6d (62.5p) on each valve-holder, would go to the Marconi Company as a royalty in return for allowing their patents to be used.

The proposals were agreed, and on 14 November 1922 the BBC went on the air from 2LO a transmitting station atop the Selfridge building in Oxford Street, London. A day later it was joined on air by 2ZY in Manchester and 51T in Birmingham. By the following October all eight of the planned stations were in operation, each producing its own programmes, and about half the population could pick up a signal strong enough to operate a crystal set.

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