Baird’s independent television 

5 April 2003

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“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 J L Baird sprang on the radio world yesterday…” – News Chronicle, Saturday February 2, 1935.

“This is a Baird Television transmission from their experimental station at the Crystal Palace, London…”

This rather idiosyncratic test card (courtesy of Ray Herbert) was used by Baird Television Limited in their transmissions from Crystal Palace in 1934-6. It may have been accompanied by Louis Levy and the Gaumont British Symphony playing ‘Music from the Movies – March’, also known, according to a recording deep in the Transdiffusion vaults, as the ‘Baird Television March’. The music was also used for Gaumont British newsreels.

In mid-1932, around the time that the BBC began regular 30-line transmissions from Studio BB in the basement of Broadcasting House (see Baird vs the BBC), things had begun to change at Baird Television Limited.

In severe financial difficulties, control of Baird’s television company had, earlier that year, been passed to a subsidiary of Gaumont-British Film Corporation, controlled by Isidore Ostrer.

The move, which had been engineered by J L Baird?s business partner Sydney Moseley in an effort to keep the company afloat, created some consternation in the company, and a number of resignations followed.


This caption was seen at the beginning of the film segment of test transmissions, which made up the second hour of the 1936 tests (see text). Picture courtesy of The MHP

A year later, in mid-1933, Baird was relieved of his duties on the BTL board, although he retained the nominal title of Managing Director. It seems that there was a feeling that Baird had focused too much on mechanical scanning and as a result there were only a couple of patents that were of value to BTL, and these would require thousands of TV sets to be produced before they would yield income. In addition, while Baird was seen as a visionary, practical men on the board, such as the new Chairman Sir Harry Greer, wanted to see results. There was even talk of a failed merger with Marconi.

The Move to Sydenham

Baird moved into a house at number 3, Crescent Wood Road in Sydenham, south London, where he was effectively banished, albeit with access to some Company facilities, to his own extensive laboratory.

Here he was to work on new projects, including large-screen television for cinemas owned by the parent company, colour television and stereoscopic TV. Just a short distance from the house was Joseph Paxton?s Crystal Palace atop Sydenham Hill, where it had been reconstructed after the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park.

Baird Television Limited moved from Long Acre to the Crystal Palace in July 1933. Of particular interest to Baird, BTL and their new technical director, former BBC and EMI engineer Captain A D G West ? and presumably the main reason for moving there ? was the southern of the two water towers 1068 feet apart at either end of the site.

Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the towers were 275 feet high and afforded an extensive view for miles around ? and the South Tower was an ideal location for VHF transmissions, which are essentially line-of-sight. VHF or better is necessary to get the required bandwidth for high-definition television images.

Aerials at the top of the tower, 680 feet above sea level and in sight of seven counties, were installed to transmit high-resolution pictures, and the company transferred its experimental GPO licences from other locations.

To avoid any potential political problems, the GPO actually consulted the BBC on the transfer: the BBC’s Sir John Reith approved as long as nothing was broadcast that looked like a public, independent TV service. He was to be disappointed.

Crystal Palace South Tower and environs

South area of the Crystal Palace site showing sections occupied by BTL (after Herbert [1]). 1: Antennas for short-wave transmission, South Tower (also see below). 2: 2-metre antenna (1938-9). 3: First floor: original transmitter (1933) 4: Ground floor: colour TV studio (1937-9) 5: Main studio, office and lab area under south transept overlooking the terrace (1933-6).
The Crystal Palace from the air

The entire complex from the air (images are from a mid-30s postcard, evidently taken after the renovations of 1933 that left the towers white). The Rotunda is in the far lower right and the School of Arts is centre-bottom of the picture in the extreme southeast wing (see text).

BTL leased 40,000 square feet under the south transept, installing offices, studios and laboratories, and a vision transmitter on the first floor of the South Tower. Later the Rotunda and space in the School of Arts were leased, bringing the total space up to 60,000 square feet.

Thanks to funding from Gaumont-British, these facilities were extensive and ultimately employed over 380 people – indeed they were arguably more comprehensive in their capabilities than the 1936 Baird installation for the BBC at Alexandra Palace, which was no doubt built on the Crystal Palace model.

Baird's TV Studios - ILN

The Illustrated London News in 1935 printed a plan of the Crystal Palace facility and drawings of Baird’s television technology. View a larger version of this drawing

Unknown to most members of the public, there were three full-size studios, the largest, Studio 1, being 60 x 40 feet in size, plus telecine and a small Spotlight Studio for continuity. A central control room looked out over all three main studios, with Studio 1?s Intermediate Film camera on the floor below.

The Intermediate Film Technique used a cine camera and 17.5 mm film (split 35 mm), which was developed in just under a minute and scanned with a flying spot.

On September 12, 1933, Baird demonstrated 120-line, 25 frames per second telecine equipment at the British Association?s annual meeting, and later that month 120-line test transmissions were made from Crystal Palace on wavelengths around 6.25 metres (48MHz).


The top of the South Water Tower in 1935-6. The antennae visible at the balcony level are for the original 6m sound and vision transmitters, while the assembly at the very top is for the 1934 10kW VHF vision transmitter.

Close-up of one of the dipoles. (Photos courtesy of Ray Herbert.)

Public Test Transmissions

In contrast to EMI, who developed their system with a fair degree of secrecy, the Baird Company was very public about its developments and missed no opportunity to invite Reith to demonstrations, which he invariably failed to attend, ostensibly to avoid being seen to favour one particular manufacturer.

He thus missed a presentation at Gaumont-British offices in Film House, Wardour Street, at noon on March 12, 1934, where 180-line transmissions using both film (telecine) and studio (Intermediate Film) sources were shown on a receiver with no moving parts, employing a cathode ray tube made under contract by GEC and showing a picture (enlarged via a lens) of effectively about 12 x 18 inches.

The vision signals originated from the 500-watt transmitter at the Crystal Palace, with audio plus sync sent by landline. BBC staff attending noted that while the picture quality was not outstanding, EMI at the time was only offering telecine (with mechanical scanning), and not “direct” (live) television.

A further demonstration of the transmissions took place at Wardour Street at the company AGM on March 20, where Greer appeared on a large-screen TV live from Crystal Palace. While Greer took a taxi back to central London, the attendees watched a variety show.

At this point, the Baird transmissions were mechanically originated, either with the flying spot scanner or via the Intermediate Film technique.

However, BTL?s board had made contact with Philo T. Farnsworth in the USA, whose ?Image Dissector? offered the possibility of an all-electronic camera for the Baird system – but unfortunately it needed a great deal of light and was thus fine for telecine but not practical for studio use.

The agreement did, however, also make Farnsworth?s magnetically deflected CRT available for Baird receivers.

A meeting took place at the GPO on 5 April, 1934, prompted by Reith and attended by BBC and GPO staff, to discuss ?the future arrangements for the handling of television?, in which the performance of Baird and EMI systems ? as well as some other technologies such as Scophony and Cossor ? were compared.

The decision was taken to appoint a committee to advise the Postmaster General on matters concerning television. Following Parliamentary assent, this was to become the Television Committee that would be headed by Lord Selsdon: its first meeting was held on May 29.

Independent Television in 1934

Also discussed were press releases from the Baird Company in which it announced that it was preparing to approach the GPO for a licence to begin an independent, high definition television service.

And in a letter to the Postmaster General at the end of April, Baird director Major A G Church noted, ??we are technically ready to provide a programme of 180-line television from our station at the Crystal Palace, to serve the whole of the Greater London area.?[1]

This was no idle threat. In December 1934, a 10kW VHF transmitter ? the most powerful transmitter of its type in the world ? was installed next to Studio 3 in the Crystal Palace building, close to the South Tower.

It was capable, according to a coverage drawing published in the Illustrated London News in 1935 along with plans of the studios, of serving the London area to a radius of 30 miles: a service area extending to Maidenhead, Hatfield, Southend and Sevenoaks.


The original 500W transmitter included two 14in high Mullard output valves, and relayed vision in 1933, sound after the 10kW vision transmitter went on the air in 1935, and finally colour images after the fire in 1936.

The 1934 10kW vision transmitter (above) was an extremely advanced design (see text). (Photos courtesy of Ray Herbert.)

Ray Herbert, an engineer at Crystal Palace from 1938, notes that to avoid Marconi triode neutralising patents the new transmitter featured Metropolitan Vickers Type 43 tetrode power output valves, which could be demounted for maintenance, and were pumped continually to maintain vacuum while in use.

The same valves, and very similar transmitters, were used in the wartime Chain Home coastal radar system; eight or nine former Baird employees moved to radar at the start of the war and BTL was involved, directly or indirectly, in the CH design.

The original 500-watt vision transmitter on the first floor of the South Tower was to be used for sound and sync signals on 35.3 MHz, while the 10kW transmitter was configured to transmit vision on 42.8MHz.

In early 1936, broadcasts used 36 and 40 MHz respectively. The frequencies used were fairly arbitrary, as the licence specified a broad range and on any particular occasion the engineers simply chose a frequency with no interference within the tuning range of the antennae.

Baird Broadcasts Alone

The Television Committee issued its report in late January 1935, proposing a high-definition VHF television service to be operated alternately by BTL and Marconi-EMI, and along with other political considerations, it is certainly possible that Baird was included at least partially to help discourage the company from carrying out its apparent threat to go independent.

Yet the very next day, surprised reporters were shown around the Crystal Palace facility and wrote extremely favourably about both the station and the picture quality.

Daily Express 020235

The Daily Express of Saturday, February 2nd, 1935 (above), along with several other papers such as the News Chronicle (below), raved about Baird’s Crystal Palace facility. On February 1st, they and the newsreels had been shown around the previously little-known television facility ? just a day after the publication of the Selsdon Report.

Geoffrey Edwards, the News Chronicle Radio Correspondent, wrote on Saturday, February 2, “Any search by the BBC for a site for the promised London Television station would, it seems, be a waste of time when the Crystal Palace station is there ready for use.”

Baird Television proceeded to underline this by transmitting a daily two-hour programme of various types of entertainment. “We could begin immediately,” said Baird, brought in from Crescent Wood Road to talk to the press, “a service of high-definition television and synchronised sound on ultra short waves for reception in homes throughout the Greater London area.”

Independent television, it seemed, might even beat the BBC to the punch.

Cafe del Diablo set

The Café Del Diablo set in Studio 1, seen from behind the Intermediate Film camera in the booth underneath the central control room. The set was used for a number of variety performances in 1935. (Photo courtesy of Ray Herbert.)
Doris Sonne, IF

An actual frame of 17.5mm Intermediate Film footage, of Doris Sonne at the Café Del Diablo. Note the single row of sprocket holes (it is split 35mm film) and the variable-density soundtrack beyond them on the left to leave as much film area as possible for the picture.

Indeed, in the period February to June 1935, over forty 180-line demonstration transmissions were made from the Crystal Palace.

Says Herbert, “For important occasions, professional performers were engaged. Alma Taylor made many return visits; others included Doris Sonne (the dancer in the Spanish sketches [these were broadcast from the ‘Café Del Diablo’ set in Studio 1 – see photos above]), Richard Hearne [later to be known as ‘Mr Pastry’], Leonard Henry, Vivian Foster (‘the Vicar of Mirth’) and Claude Dampier with Billie Carlyle. The staff assisted by providing boxing matches and carrying out announcing duties.” [2]

Boxing match, Studio 1.jpg

A boxing match staged in Studio 1, looking from the floor back towards the Intermediate Film booth and central control room above. Referee and boxers were Baird Television Limited employees. (Photo courtesy of Ray Herbert)

Official 30-line transmissions continued until 11 September 1935, but from then until transmissions began from the new BBC site at Alexandra Palace in August the following year, the Baird Crystal Palace facility, with the call sign G2TV, was the only source of television broadcasts in the UK.

However, Herbert notes that after November 1935, these primarily took the form of tests of the 240-line equipment destined for Alexandra Palace.

Studio 2

The view from the central control room into Studio 2, the ‘electron’ (Farnsworth) camera studio. (Photo courtesy of Ray Herbert)

A typical 2-hour test transmission consisted of an hour of tuning signal and gramophone records followed by a “talking picture transmission”, broadcast at 3pm and repeated at 6pm.

The transmission on February 22, 1936, for example, began, “This is a Baird Television transmission from their experimental station at the Crystal Palace, London. The Vision channel is operating on a carrier frequency of 40 mega-cycles, or a wavelength of 7.29 metres; and the Sound channel on a frequency of 36 mega-cycles, or a wavelength of 8.33 metres…”

It was A D G West, rather than Baird, who led the team that increased the system resolution while the company was based at the Crystal Palace, and developed the 240-line, 25 frames system that was to be installed at Alexandra Palace.

It was demonstrated at the Press Club on 8 November 1935, where the Baird T5, the first of the new dual-standard receivers that could receive both Baird 240-line and Marconi-EMI 405-line transmissions, was launched, showing images broadcast from the Crystal Palace.

The receivers ? where the real money was expected to be made in television ? were also built at Crystal Palace: in the School of Arts adjacent and to the east of the main complex.

Studio and transmitting equipment, essentially as developed for the Crystal Palace facility, were delivered to the new BBC station in March 1936, and transmissions from North London began in August of that year.

The BBC?s high definition Television Service from Alexandra Palace was launched officially on November 2, as has been recounted elsewhere.


The design of the windows shows that this shot of Baird telecine equipment was taken in the Crystal Palace building, probably in 1935 or early 1936. The equipment is either being readied for delivery to Alexandra Palace or for the Baird station – probably the former, as the Baird telecine booth was not near the windows overlooking the terrace.

Less than a month after the launch at Alexandra Palace, disaster struck in South London. On the evening of Monday, 30 November 1936, fire broke out in the Crystal Palace main building and spread rapidly to engulf the majority of the site, including the Baird facility.

Of Baird?s operations, only the South Tower, the School of Arts TV receiver plant and the Rotunda in the grounds, where CRTs were made, were spared. To add insult to devastation, on 16 December the Television Advisory Committee meeting decided to endorse the feeling of Alexandra Palace engineers and abandon the temperamental Baird system in transmissions from Alexandra Palace, and use the Marconi-EMI system alone.

CP Fire

Above: This famous shot of the later stages of the fire [4] shows the South Tower beyond the still-burning shell of the main building.

Work did not stop, however. The fire-damaged equipment was covered by insurance, and the Baird Company went on to install experimental Intermediate Film transmission systems in military aircraft, along with developing large-screen TV, plus colour television transmissions from the South Tower, using the original 500W transmitter on 8.3 metres (37 MHz) and a small studio on the ground floor of the tower.

There was also an experimental 200-watt 2-metre antenna and transmitter at the fourth floor level. This was used for 600-line transmissions (though generally nothing more than field strength tests) for an ingenious scheme. Gaumont-British intended to distribute their newsreels by 2-metre television to their theatres, and hoped to be allowed to break the BBC monopoly to run, essentially, the world’s first all-news television service. Unfortunately for them, the war intervened.

Broadcasting in Colour

Baird’s initial colour signals were generated from a 120-line mirror-drum camera mounted on a trolley that made it possible to take it outside the building.

It was demonstrated, first to the press in early December 1937 and then to the public on 4 February 1938 at the Dominion Theatre in London?s Tottenham Court Road, where 8-metre vision transmissions from Crystal Palace were shown on a 12ft x 9ft screen, the sound being carried by land-line.

Work continued at the Crystal Palace site until 1939, with colour and large screen 8.3m, 2m and possibly 6.25m 405-line transmissions from the South Tower; CRT and transmitter production in the Rotunda; and 400-line, 51MHz airborne TV development for the French government in the School of Arts.

With the advent of war in September 1939, Gaumont British called in a Receiver and put Baird Television Limited into liquidation.

Many members of staff lost their jobs, going on to work on radar and at research establishments. And although a new company, Cinema Television (later CinTel), was formed, Baird’s contract was terminated and his work continued largely unaided until his death in 1946.

Baird?s colour system, by the end of 1940, was essentially a development of the venerable flying-spot technology that had been part of the Baird system from the beginning.

A high-power projection cathode ray tube was set up to display a blank raster. The rapidly scanning beam was passed through a rotating disc filter, half red-orange and the other half blue-green, and then to a lens which focused the scanning beam on the object being televised, the reflected light from the object being picked up by photocells.

At the receiving end, the image was displayed on a projection CRT behind a similar synchronised spinning colour wheel, and through a lens to a screen for viewing.

600-line image

Above: This image of aviator Paddy Naismith, shot from the 600-line Baird colour display in 1940, was printed in Electronics and Television & Short-Wave World [5,6]. However, the printed version lacks the level of detail shown above.

This sequential-frame colour system was not unlike the colour TV system developed by CBS in the United States after the war, but in Baird?s case, the image was made up of 600 scanning lines and was of impressive quality (see above).

Yet even this was superseded by the ingenious all-electronic “Telechrome” system, for which a receiver was first demonstrated to the press on 16 August 1944. And in 1941, Baird had refined the mechanical system to transmit colour stereoscopic TV images using revolving shutters and Red/Green/Blue sectored discs.


This article would not have been possible without reference to the following published sources:

1. John Logie Baird ? A Life, Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, National Museums of Scotland Publishing

2. Early Television at the Crystal Palace, Ray Herbert, New Crystal Palace Matters, (Journal of the Crystal Palace Foundation), Winter 1994.

3. John Logie Baird ? A Pictorial Record of Early Television Developments, 1924-1938, Kelly Publications

4. Illustrated London News

5. Electronic Engineering (formerly Electronics and Television & Short-Wave World)

6. Television History – the first 75 years

Thanks also to Melvyn Harrison, Chairman of the Crystal Palace Foundation, and the Crystal Palace Museum staff for their assistance during my visit. In particular, my special thanks to the late Ray Herbert for the use of his photographs, press cuttings and his own articles, and helpful comments without which this article would have been impossible to write.

You Say

1 response to this article

Joseph Crecente 24 April 2015 at 12:08 am

I am interested in finding out about the final disposition of Baird Television, LTD. especially the American Units which were sold in the U.S. in 1931-32. My grandmother purchased 150 shares in 1931 and 1932 and we have often wondered what became of the company.

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