The BBC’s beginning was cramped and crowded, with few people hearing it. That wouldn’t last long…
On this day in (engineering) history…
The year is 1922 and sometime this afternoon, November 14th, a small group of people will climb the stairs to the top floor of London’s Marconi House. Waiting at the top is a small box room containing a desk, microphone and piano. History hasn’t counted the steps, but will mark what these people are about to do.
At 6pm, Arthur Burrows will read the news followed by a weather forecast, after which the broadcast will end, to return the same time tomorrow. This will mark the first broadcast of a London radio station called 2LO, known today as the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Let’s rewind to 1894, when British physicist Oliver Lodge first publicly demonstrated radio transmission. He used a specially built receiver to capture morse code transmitted from 60 metres away. The British based Italian businessman, Guglielmo Marconi, attempted to turn the laboratory device into something more commercially viable.
Before and after the First World War, radio broadcast became the domain thousands of amateurs, some of whom would put up their own transmitters.
Britain’s General Post Office wanted to avoid what it saw as the ‘chaos’ in America, where ‘too many radio stations were in competition with each other. The Post Office granted a monopoly to a sole broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. This was a private company in which only British manufacturers of ‘wireless equipment’ were allowed to be shareholders. Perhaps concerns about The Marconi Company’s dominant position in the nascent radio broadcast market also helped decide the minds of Marconi’s rivals in favour of cooperation rather than confrontation.
Advertising would be forbidden, but funding would come from a 50% slice of a new fee for a licence to own a radio.
Thus, the new organisation began as an amalgam of eight radio stations, each owned by different companies based in the country’s major cities. For example, 2LO was owned by Marconi; Manchester’s 2ZY, which began the first regular childrens’ show and regular weather forecast, was owned by Metropolitan-Vickers.
Other stations soon followed, Glasgow’s 5SC (broadcast the first excerpt of an Opera) opened in in March 1923 while 5WA (broadcast the first full performance of a new orchestral opera) opened in Cardiff at the end of May, 1923.
Arthur Burrows, the Beeb’s first Director of Programmes, was an ex-newspaper journalist and manager at Marconi. Burrows’ deputy, Cecil Lewis had been a fighter pilot during the Great War. Both had been profoundly affected by the war. Burrows didn’t want a repeat of the misinformation that surged during the conflict. Lewis wanted to forget about the war and its destruction, preferring news to be relegated to a minor role, once saying he’d had his fill of current affairs in the fighting. Lewis, being responsible for creating the programme schedule in the coming months, remained true to his loathing of news, making sure to put in music, drama and big shows. He wanted entertainment, and to highlight the beauty and wisdom of the World. Both men wanted the BBC to become a major cultural resource for the benefit of all.
When the BBC began in May 1922, its staff of four people could fit into the first office, a cramped space in London’s Magnet House. This was later swapped for the comparative luxury of the home of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (‘the IET,’ as it would become) in Savoy Hill. Two studios became nine and the space rapidly became cramped for the 400 people who had joined by December 1923.
At Savoy Hill, the BBC thrived. The new-ness of it all meant people were free to do what they wanted, up to a point, without being crushed by ‘tradition’ or the dead weight of well established routine. Short comedy sketches, book readings, musical recitals, talks and lectures were all broadcast and broadcast live, without rehearsal, often with staff filling in for the lack of performers. Opera would be relayed (via cables laid by BBC engineers) from Covent Garden, as would dance bands in the nearby Savoy Hotel.
The, often sweltering, studios were kitted out to look as homely as possible, with sofas, side-tables and lamps. While this may sound quaint today, it was to help create a familiar atmosphere in a place that was made profoundly unusual by the presence of a microphone.
These early microphones were little more than telephone receivers dangling from the ceiling. More sophisticated, and closer to our idea of an old mic, was the ‘magnetophone’. This was a magnet, suspended in a rubber sling, within a wooden frame (a Faraday Cage) as protection from electromagnetic interference.by rubber.
This was an object that struck fear into seasoned performers. Despite attempts by BBC staff to humanise this intimidating technology, people still found it alarming, frightening in a way stage fright wasn’t, creating ‘microphone fright’ in many people who attempted to use it.
By the early 1930s, the BBC had become what it’s Burrows, Lewis and its first Director General had sought for it; to become a respected part of the culture, known for reliability, accuracy and education. But more than this, it also became something that perhaps Reith (a man of strict, perhaps even dour, presbyterian outlook) was never comfortable with. It became something that lifted people’s spirits when required, made them laugh, pointed them to music and a good time.
How true is it to say modern broadcasting wouldn’t be what it is without the BBC?
Or put another way, what difference do you think the BBC has made to the world we live in?
Stephen Phillips is an IET Content Producer, with passions for history, engineering, tech and the sciences.