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BBC is 100 Years Old

Happy anniversary to the BBC[i]! Now, readers[ii], if you wouldn’t mind just moving a comfortable chair next to your radio set and ensuring that you can tune in easily and quickly to 400, 425 and 450 metres, ask your wife to be sure to have dinner ready early and have the children settled so that you and your family will not be interrupted during this inaugural broadcast. Today, the 17th May 1922, will mark the start of a new, modern technology which will change, for ever, the way in which we communicate ideas, information and entertainment. Here is our programme for this evening, as advertised in the Manchester Evening Chronicle[iii].

“1        Extract from the ‘Times’, Friday, May 12th.

Speech by Mr. McKenna.

Wavelength 450 metres.

“2        (Gramophone) – Violin Solo.

            ‘Berceuse’ (Townsend) played by Fritz Kreisler.

            Wavelength 400 metres

“3        (Gramophone) – Soprano.

‘Sempre libera gedd’io folleggaire’ sung by Amelia Galli-Curci.

Wavelength 425 metres.

“4        Extract from German Newspaper (Neue Freie Presse).

            Description of Lloyd George at his house in Genoa.

            Wavelength 425 metres

“5        (Gramophone) – Fox Trot.

            ‘Why, Dear’ played by Joseph C Smith’s Orchestra.

            Wavelength 450 metres.”

And so it began. The first broadcast, made from a converted conference room at the Metrovick station in Trafford Park, the factory’s tall water tower conveniently holding the aerial cables, whilst the transmitter was in a small room under the stairs, close to the conference room cum studio. The best minds had come together and, working with what was available after the war, had cobbled together something that worked albeit set with teething troubles from the outset. 

The transmitter was temperamental, but the studio was the real problem. Not much was known about acoustics and in an effort to get the quiet that was needed to transmit from a busy heavy-industry location, the walls, floor and ceiling were insulated to such a degree that the sound became ‘dead’. The singers complained that there was no resonance, that it was impossible to perform without some of what we now term more loosely as ‘acoustics’.

The radio waves were not always exclusive to any particular broadcaster in those days, so another issue for the listener (and the performer if the broadcast was not a gramophone record) was that the director might press the button that would light up a red lamp in the studio. At that point the studio manager would have to stop the performers and announce that the station ‘will now close down for three minutes’. This was necessary in case the broadcast was over-riding any SOS messages or other important radio traffic. Would the listeners have minded?

Fast forward a century and we are all experiencing similar problems with online meetings today, hardly a meeting or webinar survives without at least one apology – ‘I’m so sorry that you are looking at my kitchen – the university background just won’t work!”, “Can you hear us online? We can see you in the room but there is no sound!” and, a common complaint: “I can’t get my PowerPoint to start… it was working perfectly when we practised twenty minutes ago!” Problems with acoustics still haunt us, internet connections suddenly disconnect and police sirens, ice cream vans and children playing occasionally enliven the presentation. Those first broadcasters must have been on adrenaline highs, fingers crossed and hoping that all would go well.

In 2022 we are learning the new ways of communicating ideas, information, and entertainment. It is particularly interesting that we also strive to offer a varied programme of events with the second half of 2022 offering advice on DNA tests, a Scottish Palaeography Workshop, Turnpikes and Maps of Manchester, Professional Footballers, The History of Carnival, Agricultural Hiring Fairs – and more.

Who were the pioneers who led us into this new era of information streaming? The industrialist George Westinghouse acquired 130 acres of land at Waters Meeting Farm from the Trafford Park Estates. Waters Meeting, at Stretford, is still a delightful walk along the towpaths of the Bridgewater Canal, accessed by the humpback bridge on Moss Lane next to where the ‘Metrovicks’ training school stood until recently. Its quiet countryside charm belies the fact that the huge Westinghouse factory was only a short walk away, leading into the rest of the industrial estate. The factory later became Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company.

APM Fleming was working in the research department at Westinghouse; at the end of WW1 attention was turned to the fledgling telecommunications industry in the USA where Westinghouse had begun transmitting popular music, starting a craze whereby some 500 stations were transmitting in America in 1921. Amateurs in Britain were following this trend closely and keen to become involved; Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester were also actively involved with this new scene. Hugh Bell, an engineer, went to America to get first-hand experience which resulted in Fleming going to America the next year. What they both saw was a mess of individual stations all competing against each other and disorganisation in the industry generally: that could only mean one thing – demand was high. Opportunity was everywhere, but organisation and control of the airwaves was paramount.

Manchester, never slow to pick up on the next trend, the next exciting opportunity, already had a Wireless Society; MetroVicks was a heavy engineering business – a quite different line of industry, but the managing director, Captain RS Hilton was also a director of a company making marine radio equipment, Radio Communication Company of Slough (RCC) and he became involved with setting up a Manchester station. Basil Binyon of RCC worked with Fleming and FJ Brown at the Post Office to put forward their case for “a licence to establish two broadcasting stations, one in Manchester and the other in Slough.[iv]

There is, of course, a lot more to this story, and I am indebted to Ian Hartley’s book “2ZY to NBH”[v]  for this outline of the early history of broadcasting. But, before I leave the story in 1921, it is interesting to note that Fleming paid particular attention to the output of the stations in America, so many were competing against each other to play the latest jazz music that he decided that the output from our island “should be carefully segregated into distinct types so that the public would know beforehand on which nights to expect programmes to suit their tastes.” Does that sound familiar?[vi]  (HH).


[i] The licensing document for the British Broadcasting Corporation was signed on the 15th December 1922: 2ZY to NBH: An informal history of the BBC in Manchester & the North West, Ian Hartley (1987), Willow Publishing, Altrincham, England. P12.

[ii] In common with much of the BBC’s output, anything not in quotes is story telling or dramatization, as they say.

[iii] As quoted in 2ZY to NBH: An informal history of the BBC in Manchester & the North West, Ian Hartley (1987), Willow Publishing, Altrincham, England.

[iv] Ibid., p8

[v] Ibid, pp 7-9

[vi] Ian Hartley’s book appears to be out of print but will be available from libraries. I obtained my copy from Ebay. This account from early thoughts to 1921 is covered in the first 10 pages of the book – that leaves another 98 pages which would appeal to anyone interested in broadcasting or local history.

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