A Backroom Activity Within BBC Research
A fascinating and personal account of the role of the backroom engineers at the BBC within the context of scientific discoveries and the development of the whole concept of public communications, and in one of the most amazing and significant developments of the 20th century.
Seventy Years Before the Masts: A Backroom Activity Within BBC Research by Ron Sandell
Early in the 20th century a worldwide revolution began. The ability to communicate over great distances using a wireless system meant that within a few years one man or woman could speak to millions. Broadcasting was to open ears, eyes and minds, but it had a slow start. It emerged from the work of many scientists and engineers, some of whom had devoted their lives to transforming ideas into reality.
Marconi had arrived in Britain in 1896 to stimulate the growth of wireless systems, but it was not until 1922 that arrangements for a national broadcasting service were agreed. The British Broadcasting Company was formed, and within two years twenty transmitting stations were providing a service to 70% of the population. The company, soon to become a corporation, was employing just over a hundred engineers, of whom fewer than half a dozen or so were concerned with planning the coverage – the areas served by the transmitters.
Eventually, a section within the BBC research department was set up for that purpose. At any one time it contained between four and fifty staff, the total being dependent upon the workload. Over a period of seventy years, about a hundred people were to spend some part of their BBC careers within this team.
Ron Sandell joined them in 1954, and he found the work so compulsive and varied that he remained for the next thirty-seven years.
The text of this book is based upon Ron’s personal archives, diaries, etc, garnered by two previous leaders of the section, Robert Arthur Rowden and himself. Occasionally, the story dips into the scientific and engineering aspects, because some explanation is needed to follow the plot. Mostly, it is a fascinating account of scientific discoveries, the development of the whole concept of public communications and the role of the backroom engineers in one of the most amazing and significant developments of the 20th century.
"The broadcasting chain, from its origin in the studio or elsewhere to the actual viewer or listener, passes through many elements in a very complex system. The author uses the epithet 'the weakest link' to characterise that section of the chain between the broadcaster’s transmitter and the customer’s receiver. This book is essentially concerned with the struggle, over many years, to strengthen this link and improve our understanding of how it works.
The book is subtitled 'a backroom activity within BBC research'. For much of the seventy years of the title, this activity was performed by a group known as Service Planning Section. The author joined the section in 1952, was its head from 1972 till 1985, and maintained his connection till 1992. For the earlier period he has had access to diaries and notes passed on by his predecessor, Arthur Rowden, and the reports and personal recollections of colleagues. This personal connection contributes greatly to the authoritative character of the book.
For about fifteen years following the formation of the BBC in 1922 the main aim was to achieve national coverage for two sound programmes. After the war, work continued to extend the embryo London television service to provide full national coverage. More or less in parallel with this was the introduction of VHF/FM sound broadcasting. All these projects involved extensive activity by the service planning engineers. The book describes this in considerable detail, both the work done and the personalities involved. An extended contents section assists the reader to locate any particular point of interest. Indeed, it might almost constitute an executive summary.
The historical interest of this account derives not only from the development of BBC programme services but also from the progress made in advancing the technology. The author has successfully integrated the detailed story of field strength measurement and service planning with the overall picture of the developing BBC, particularly its engineering division. Some emphasis in the book is given to the progress of research in relevant aspects of the work but it also describes the planning techniques which were developed and the site testing programmes performed. The site testing work clearly involved significant physical activity such as flying balloons and erecting temporary masts. The accounts of incidents during this outdoor testing also produce some of the book’s lighter moments.
The wartime interlude will have a particular interest for many readers. The BBC was obliged to reorganise its transmitter networks to avoid providing navigation guidance to enemy planes. A new network of low-power stations was built to provide an alternative service to the main urban centres if the existing high-power stations should be knocked out. In addition, members of the service planning team, having the appropriate skills, were able to contribute to several important defence projects.
Probably the most extensive project described in the book derived directly from the desire to introduce colour to television. A special situation applied to television in the United Kingdom.
A decision had been made after the war to restart and extend television using the original 405-line system developed in the thirties. This could not sensibly be modified for colour so it was decided, after wide consultation throughout industry and the broadcasting profession, to start again in a new higher frequency band (UHF). The author, now on his home ground, describes well the coordinated measurement programmes to investigate the essential characteristics of propagation at these frequencies. Fortunately for this work it was possible to radiate test transmissions for an extended period from the existing Crystal Palace mast, and several organisations were able to participate and thus gain experience of working at these frequencies. The author also describes and illustrates the results of BBC measurements on long distance propagation over an extended period.
Based on the measurement work within the UK and elsewhere, a four-programme frequency plan was developed to satisfy this country’s perceived present and future requirements. This ambitious plan formed the basis of the UK proposals to the international frequency planning conference held at Stockholm in 1961. For me, the highlight of the book would be the author’s description of his experience at this conference. The inevitable ups and downs of such occasions and the sheer hard work involved are well described. Despite all the problems the main aims of the delegation were broadly achieved. This was due in no small part to the efforts of the author and his colleagues in obtaining acceptance of the basic data and driving through the well prepared UK proposals. It may be seen as a tribute to the resilience of the plan that it lasted four decades. Finally it succumbed to the advancing tide of digits.
After the conference came the implementation. In the end this required the construction of forty-nine main transmitting stations and more than six hundred relay stations of gradually decreasing size. The task was to duplicate the existing 405-line VHF services of BBC and ITA. In the joint construction programme which followed, some of the main stations were on existing sites but the remainder and nearly all the relay stations were at new locations. The author describes the mammoth service planning effort and the coordination machinery that was set up to deal with the situation over a period of some twenty years.
In his later chapters the author describes and discusses the increasing contribution of cables and satellites to television distribution. He also introduces the arguments for the use of digital modulation for terrestrial television. These considerations culminated in the decision to change the whole over-the-air television network to digital transmission.
In his concluding chapter the author offers some conclusions and a suggestion for the future. The first conclusion at least is difficult to deny - more research could have led to a more economical solution in many cases. The impact of competition and the complexities of obtaining international agreement also attract comments which are hard to refute. Such problems also occur in other fields.
Perhaps, in the distant future, when everyone is watching their own individual choice of television programme on cable, satellite or the internet, there will be a place for the author’s suggestion of an essentially terrestrial public information service. At the moment I would be inclined to rely on Freeview, discussion next morning round the water cooler and general public inertia to preserve something recognisably similar to the status quo."