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Time Future

P P Eckersley, MIEE, FIRE, Wireless World, April, 1959.
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In two previous articles the first Chief Engineer of the BBC has given an account of the early days of wireless communication and the development of sound broadcasting, with which he was intimately concerned. In this concluding article he gives his views on the growth of television and the technical and social impact of telecommunications in the years to come.

Television and Transistor

'The Idiots Lantern' - 'A window opening upon the sentient world' - 'Hamlet in a boot cupboard' - 'A means to teach Democracy the art of being ruled' - 'The ruin of the art of the film' - 'Educations greatest boon' - 'The ruin of Education' - 'The refiner of mans mind, taste and manners' - 'My dear! In the flats where Amanda has to live everybody has one. My dear! The noise and the people' - 'Weve given the old Duchess a television set and she loves it - except that Harding person'.

Indeed, television provokes disparate opinion. It washes over the population night after night. Does it wash away the dross and so sharpen outlines, or does it ossify, thus cramping movement?

We remember the House of Lords in its finest hour; ancestral voices prophesying national disaster and ultimate degradation if we dared to let television come under the same kind of control as does 'The Free Press of Democracy'. We remember and wonder and sometimes we believe that the debate was about a truly vital issue, for television is power.

And all this because, some time in the early thirties, a Scotsman, the late John Logie Baird, said, in effect: 'We now have the light-sensitive cell, we now have the thermionic valve, ergo, we now have television'. But let it also be clear that Professor A A Campbell-Swinton, in a letter to Nature dated June 18th, 1908, described how a television service might be consummated. He proposed using a cathode ray tube with electromagnetic scanning coils for both transmission and reception. The scheme was more fully described by him on November 7th, 1911, when he took up the subject again as a basis for his Presidential Address to the Rontgen Society. The camera tube was to consist of a mosaic of photoelectric cells, thus, in principle at least, anticipating the Zworykin iconoscope and the Emitron camera.

I saw a good deal of Campbell-Swinton when television was first mooted; he was singularly modest, reticent even about his original proposals; he praised Baird for his insight, meaning his realization that, while the basic idea of television might not be new, nevertheless the instrumentality was ready to make it practicable.

Baird stood above his contemporaries in imagination, but, as events proved, below them in knowledge. Bairds first crude demonstrations stimulated the whole technical world to tackle the problem of producing a worthwhile service; in a few years the brains and resources of the big companies transformed those flickering images of the first demonstration into acceptable moving pictures.

I was truly sorry for Baird. He was, in my opinion, 'fooled to the top of his bent' - told by a sensation boosting Press that he was the worlds greatest technical genius, that he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, dazzled by the prospect of millions of money, he was induced to 'go it alone'. Earlier than he did Baird ought to have gathered about him physicists, technicians and such, who, using the money so freely available would, without doubt, have built up a Baird system at least in no way inferior to those developed later on by the big companies. At last, but not soon enough, the Baird company did engage the services of one of the pioneers of broadcasting, the late Captain A G D West, who eventually produced the Baird system. Readers will doubtless recollect that, in the early months of the Television Service in 1936, the BBC put this system into service in parallel with another devised by the Marconi Company and EMI and this other was the only one to be retained.

A recollection of Baird is of him throwing his hands into the air, crying 'Don't talk to me of sidebands!' - it was just what I was talking to him about. How fatal to hopes are the brute facts of physics.

There is a law which says that citizens may be fined #10 for leaving litter in public places; some equivalent punishment should be visited upon those who unload their guilt in public. Confession may be good for the soul but it seems to me a weaklings indulgence - so much as a prelude to a confession.

Put quite crudely the fact is that I did not want television to succeed. Why? Largely because it would interfere with plans for expanding sound broadcasting, partly because it was a suggestion from outside; it did not arise within the BBC Nothing that I in fact did, or could do, retarded the development of television, my external actions were correct and logical. I was right not to encourage the Baird ballyhoo and I was right to say 'show us a worthwhile picture and we will try to transmit it'. In fact, a television service was started after I left the BBC, but even then, in my heart of hearts, I still opposed and, here is the point, in opposing I found what I conceived to be technical reasons why television could not succeed. Taking the well-known formulae for ground wave attenuation, knowing the order of carrier frequency required for a 3 MHz sideband, I calculated the ground-wave attenuation and found a service area of - well, say, a mile or two in radius! I forgot, because I did not want to remember, that metric waves do not come under the same laws as those hundreds of metres in length.

I became in fact the engineer who does not want a new idea to succeed and uses what dangerous little learning he may possess to deny and to oppose. Only this once have I been on the side of the devil and I learned a humiliating lesson. I must, however, compensate this abasement by stating, very firmly, that some of my ideas have been good enough to have been turned down by official opinion. Let the reader take this not as a confession but as a cautionary tale. But in the case of television neither my opposition, more ideological than influential, nor any one elses could have stood in the way; television had to come and I was silly not to realize it.

I do not own a television receiver. This is not an extension of past prejudice, it is because of a preference for a form of life which, while it does not scorn the delights of the electronic theatre cannot find time to indulge them; there is a preference for social contacts, books, theatre, concerts and a furtive pleasure in writing unpublished verse. I have, of course, spent many evenings looking at television programmes but not so persistently as to form habits of interpretation. This may have resulted in a more objective view and therefore more authority to detached criticism.

From an overhearing of casual conversation among experts and from desultory reading I gather that many technicians and others view the future of television as brightened by colour and limited by stereoscopy. I part company with such because I believe that before these improvements can be of any real value the viewing angle has got to be larger; more simply, in my belief, todays screen is too small. I know! I know! there are all sorts of 'scientific' postulates about distance and angle and eyes and so on - the sort of thing that reminds one that a law of aerodynamics proves that the humble-bee cannot fly but 'the bee, not knowing this, goes on flying'.

It is fascinating to see how television programme producers are automatically trying to make a virtue of necessity, adapting their technique to this limitation of the small screen. The camera seems to be forced to convey its message by a successive showing of the detailed mosaic of the pattern rather than, as on the theatre stage, the pattern itself and by itself. In television emotion is, as it were, conveyed by a series of shots, first the tensity of the heroines right toe, next the twitch of the nose, next the crook of a finger. The camera fidgets and this fidgets me.

It is rewarding also to see my theories about presentation again confirmed, this time in terms of television. The producer does his best to make a virtue of the necessity of the small screen but, to my mind, there is too little virtue because too little screen!

But even supposing the screen were larger, would colour make such a revolution as some would have us believe? We must not forget the extra cost of a colour receiver. Imagine when colour was first introduced to the cinema that picture theatres showing coloured films had charged extra; how many would have counted the cost worth while? We have seen black and white films that lifted us out of our seat and, even at N Kalmus orchidaceous best, others that sent us somnolently back to it. And think again when you have seen a film and someone asks you, three days later, was it in colour? You may find it hard to answer. Was it good? Your answer comes pat.

Again, stereoscopy is it needed? Again, the cinema; 3D died; possibly those spectacles discouraged it, but that showed that they did not greatly benefit the spectacle.

If, however, the screen were enlarged then I believe that what are now more in the nature of stunts, what might be no more than palliatives for poor programmes, could be of benefit. First things first, and to me the big screen is a paramount necessity. (No advertisement intended.)

So far I may have revealed a grudging attitude towards television, it might be thought that an original prejudice lingers on and produces these curmudgeonly phrases, these half admissions. Maybe the impression may be so, but to oppose it let me quote what I wrote some twenty years ago when television was in its initial stages and when its future was uncertain. This, or something very like it, is what I wrote:

'Even as I run my eye down the titles some have changed, showing that a new item has superseded the old. Apparently I have missed a Choral Symphony from Moscow, but I can still watch 'How it Works' in which I have a particular interest. So I lower myself into a chair and press the appropriate button on a remote control panel placed conveniently beside me. The voices accompanying the picture displayed on the screen 10 square feet in area are suddenly in the room, startling in their naturalness. A bit loud, so I reduce them with the volume knob under my hand. I must get my dinner soon or I shall miss the premiere of a new English comic opera called 'Reading from Left to Right', otherwise I would stay to see the end of the tennis. But I shall get the results in my house newspaper tomorrow. This will be printed, while I sleep, by a machine in the lobby. Not a hint of background noise or spots on the picture spoils the programme and the sound quality is so lovely that reproduction criticizes every detail of the playing and speaking.'

How do I pay for all this? I dont know. This is a dream not a nightmare. Its a whale of a dream!

'I have a dream about the future. I see the interior of a living-room. The wide windows are formed from double panes of glass, fixed and immovable. The conditioned air is fresh and warm. Old-fashioned people would feel uncomfortable without the fire and fireplace, others might miss the raucous brown box we used to call 'the wireless'. But flush against the wall there is a translucent screen with numbered strips of lettering running across it. These are the titles describing the many different broadcasting programmes which can be heard by just pressing the corresponding button.

'I glance down the list. Obviously programmes of the same sort are grouped together. The music group includes Scheherezada, Rimsky Korsakov (London), Beethovens Ninth Symphony, Kosterkovitch conducting (Moscow). Then some lighter music: Waltz Time (Vienna), Sea Pieces, Macdowel (Manchester). Lighter still we come to Jazz Festival (Los Angeles) and the Harmony Hitch Hikers (New York). Talks break out more seriously: The New Farming (Norwich), The Severn Barrage - Special Reporters interview President Inst. Civil Engineers (London).

'Television programmes are set apart. I can, if I like, see the repeat of an old favourite, The Importance of Being Earnest or Mens Semi-Finals, Centre Court, Wimbledon or How it Works (children).

Surely the future, as I adumbrate in the quotation, is possible, but it would be lazy not to discuss, in broad terms, what will be the means to what I believe to be a so desirable consummation.

Speculations about the future of anything, let alone technology, are bedevilled by political uncertainties. Will the nations continuously rave or will it dawn upon the Big Boys that 'peace-loving' means more than a propaganda gimmick, that it is a state of being? Regardless of nationality, I mistrust the Big Boys; as a young man I was asked to join in a war to end all wars, twenty-five years later my children were told to join another which, so it would appear, was fought to end all peace. Perhaps the failure of the aims of the former will be compensated by an equal failure of the apparent aims of the latter; let us assume so and get on with predictions about a peaceful future.

We are familiar with international programme exchanges, my prediction for a peaceful world sees a notable increase in their quantity and quality.

The reproduction of programmes brought to us from overseas is usually comparatively poor when the international link is formed by long-hop radio (what would be likely to be called by todays word-spinners supra-horizonal transmission). This use of the ionized layer as a wave reflector has the disadvantage of introducing differential fading of the sideband components and even though the improvements due to single-sideband working are remarkable, the result is iust not good enough when compared with 'local' reception. For this reason I predict that, as and when they become available, the broadcasting organizations will make use of ocean cables for inter-continental programme exchanges. For overland communication it will be either cable or line-of-sight radio; depending upon economics.

In other words, the future of international broadcasting will be modelled on present systems for national broadcasting. The post and telegraph administrations of the world are building and will continue to build their own national networks and will collaborate in setting up international links; the worlds broadcasting organizations will use these facilities, as they do today; but the facilities will be expanded and perfected.

Before we leave this question of how the worlds national communication systems may be internationally linked, it is interesting to observe that this could be done without the use of ocean cables; it could, in fact, be done by means of line-of-sight radio stations. I leave my readers the fun of studying the globe and finding paths, never longer than line of sight between islands, which would link the world. Anchored ships not allowed! I have not tried to solve the puzzle, but I am told it is solvable - remember, copying Chesterton, the way we linked up Spitzbergen by way of Cape Good Hope.

In dismissing the long-hop radio from my future it would seem that I could, inter alia, dismantle Daventry and still the Voice of America. The value of these 'overseas services' is equated to two alleged benefits, namely (a) propaganda, (b) keeping in touch with the expatriate. Postulating that before long we shall be plunged into a world-shaking peace, 'propaganda' in its nasty aspect is unnecessary; postulating an international network, the expatriate will enjoy his contacts with 'home' from a 'local' source not by a fading and often noise-drowned signal.

Go back to my dream of the future with its big screen and its multitude of programmes then propaganda in its acceptable aspects is clearly manifest; anyone anywhere can chose not only the offerings of his own nationals but those of the civilized world. Nation unto nation shall speak peace if my dream were to come true. Incidentally referring to todays propaganda in its nasty sense, I often pose myself these questions; if it is really potent then is it not jammed? If it has little value and is therefore not jammed what is the good of it?

Thus my dream of time-future must now be clear; a multi-frequency service devised from a network that spans the world and brings to the citizens of it, by wire or radio (depending upon which serves the needs of good quality the best), local, national and international sound and vision programmes immediately available by the pressing of a button.

I doubt it requires any miraculous invention to allow the evolution I envisage to take place. The bigger picture, colour, and a wide choice of programmes, all demand 'frequency', meaning a transmission medium which will carry a wide gamut of frequencies and give substantially equal attenuation and low noise level to the components within it. Clearly the mean frequency within the favourable gamut must be higher than that used for either VHF or television today. If radio transmission on these extreme high frequencies were to be used, then reflections, refraction and blind spots would make the service, to say the least, hazardous. No! I must return once more to my conviction that, in some way or another, the network that will serve the house-holds of the future will be essentially conductive. Maybe the waveguide will be developed; it appears to hold fascinating potentials for a multi-channel system. Recent developments in pulse-code modulation indicate that the bugbear of noise may be squashed (that is if a bugbear is the kind of bug that can be squashed).

It is further certain that the transistor, when it and its associated components are made more reliable than they are today, will be of enormous assistance in building up these networks, whatever their ultimate form. The essential advantage of the transistor is its power efficiency and, in time, will be its durability. Clearly the power economy offered by the transistor will benefit the ocean cable in the sense that it will reduce repeater spacing and so permit a greater message capacity - meaning more telephone channels, a better transmission of pictures and so forth.

I used to hymn the valve with

'Hither bring in one content anode, grid and filament'.

No rhyme occurs to me when the reason for the transistor is so clear.

There are, however, times when I could wish the facilities that the invention offers could be more discreetly used. Lying upon a Mediterranean beach last year the beneficence of sun and the soothe of sea were, to say the least, undermined by the squawk of portables made more portable by the use of semi-conductors. The very fact that the transistor allows so much to be contained in so little forces the designer of the portable to use those very minor loudspeakers which in their outpouring commit a major nuisance. This by the way, the rough with the smooth, one expects in time to get a reasonably priced receiver giving good quality without the intromission of mains hum, believing that a battery would supply sufficient, because silent, power.

Some rule limiting the power output of all sets installed in flats or attached or semi-detached houses would receive my unqualified support. About an eighth of a Watt would be a fair maximum. There is another solution and that is to build proper sound insulation into houses and flats - why dream? Why dream? Because dreaming is the way to reality. But once one starts speculation about time-future dreams may become so vague as to be hardly worth recording. Maybe this already applies to what I have written; for fear of piling Pelion upon Ossa it is time to leave off.

May I nevertheless be forgiven if, in a few concluding paragraphs, I pull out the Vox Humana stop and tread rather sentimentally upon the pedals? I hope for forgiveness because I suspect my sincerity will be obvious.

It is my belief that the pursuit of happiness is mans sanest occupation. But by happiness I do not mean the facile escapisms of lounging and leering, of passivity and conformity, I mean the term to be related to creation, making things, be they material or of the mind.

To be thus creative within the ambit of science and technology can be a pure delight, in one sense a lazy delight since it is certain that ones opponent, matter, will never make a mistake. In human affairs more subtle considerations apply, the manoeuvres of politics, management, diplomacy and so forth face incalculable human factors; the administration of justice is guided by criteria which are mutable. In its behaviour matter is timeless, its resistances once overcome are for every subdued. But it is this very characteristic of predictability upon which the intellectual satisfactions of scientific discovery and technological invention is founded. There is an exquisite satisfaction in mastering a problem, of seeing the symbiosis between mathematical analysis and experimental verification.

I often wonder whether todays engineer is aware of what a fund of pleasure he can draw upon; when I see the rush, as bell or blast signals the end of the days work my wonder turns to commiseration. Or do I mistake the impulse? Do many, as I do. live with their problems, take them to bed. bath and train, and there, or anywhere fight them to submission?

Such sentiments about the delights of labour must not be taken to imply a rejection of leisure; on the contrary 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. I count holidays, and the full enjoyment of them by a complete rejection of work, the most potent means to get work well done. Indeed I often wonder if the foundation of happiness is not to treat work as most treat their hobbies and hobbies as most treat their work. Leisure does not imply just slacking about, its true value is the opportunity for a change of occupation. That occupation, even on a sun-lit beach, may still consist of a survey of the wide champaign of thought.

Yes! It can all be such fun, so gay and, be it stressed, not so deadly serious a matter as some appear to consider it. Immersed some rainy afternoon in a warm interior confronted by a new circuit, a new device, pricking out a graph, watching the needles of the instruments, surely the Lab is 'Paradise enow'.

If the speculations about possible futures that I have sketched in the foregoing fail to materialize then they will ascend to the limbo of the departed spirits of idealists - good company I feel. If, in degree, they prove sound then it will be because of the work of engineers who find more to do than just solve problems, who see beyond technological barriers and - by breaking them down - desire to add something notable to, at least, human convenience, at most human happiness.

The more likely rewards lie in the field of broadcasting which, with the guidance of men of good will, can become, increasingly, a teacher of tolerance and an instructor of good living. If broadcasting can continue to fulfil such a destiny then some of us, who, many years ago, dreamed possible futures and made them in part come true, may feel a measure of thanks for the opportunity and a measure of satisfaction in making use of it. But there is much more to be done; we who began hope it will be well done and therefore done in the mood of gaiety and enthusiasm without which nothing can be well done.

An inevitably invidious seIection of photographs of some of those to whom we owe the inception of the worlds first television service. Reading from left to right: A A Campbell-Swinton, J L Baird, A G D West, I Shoenberg, A D Blumlein.
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