Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HAVE YOU BEEN watching a lot of electronic images lately? Me too, including television, opera streaming, GMax aeroplane crafting, and occasional Zooming. I guess I count any screen, be it Panasonic Viera or Apple iMac27 and iPad or vintage Sony Vaio.

While giving my eyes a rest, I got to thinking about early television, when those of us of a certain age were fascinated by minuscule images in black and white, combined with snow and periodic test patterns.

“What’s a test pattern, Grandpa?”

This test pattern was seen on KNXT, Los Angeles channel 2, in 1951. Changing to KCBS in 1984, the station had originated in 1931 as experimental television W6XAO, broadcasting one hour a day to five receivers in the area.

SimanaitisSays has not been remiss in its examination of early television: See “TV History and Culture,” “The Birth of Los Angeles TV,” and “Earl Madman Muntz.”

This time around, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, tidbits are gleaned from BBC Television: 50 Years, itself something of a vintage book published 35 years ago, plus some Internet sleuthing.

BBC Television Presents: a Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration: TV 50, by Nicholas Moss, foreward by Bill Cotton, BBC Data Publications, 1986.

In his foreward, Bill Cotton, BBC TV Managing Director in 1986, wrote, “From the beginning, all those at Alexandra Palace, programme makers, technicians, and administrators, were operating virtually in a vacuum…. The public was familiar with the concept of television from ‘Ally Pally’ largely through the press; but comparatively few people had seen a broadcast.”

An Edwardian High-Tech Dream. BBC Television: 50 Years describes the contribution of Scottish electrical engineer Alan Campbell-Swinton.

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton, 1863–1930, Scottish consulting electrical engineer. In a June 18, 1908, letter appearing in Nature, he described a theoretical “distant electric vision” using cathode-ray tubes. This and other images from BBC Television: 50 Years.

Campbell-Swinton conceived of firing electrons at a cathode-ray screen in a sweeping beam, releasing charge and creating varying strength impulses. These impulses could be amplified, fed to a transmitter, and received by another cathode-ray tube, thus recreating the image.

Technology had to catch up with his imagination. In 1931, Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian-born physicist working in America, came up with the idea of a mosaic of separate photo cells arrayed on the cathode-ray screen. He called it an Iconoscope.

Swinton’s idea, made workable by Zworykin.

Competing Technologies. BBC Television: 50 Years notes, “The official opening of the service was on the afternoon of November 2nd [1936] and took place twice: first by the Baird system and then by the Marconi-E.M.I system.”

A BBC Television Tuning Signal. Image from

E.M.I. had evolved in 1931 from a merger of two British recording firms: the Gramophone Company (also known as H.M.V. for “His Master’s Voice”) and Columbia Gramophone Company. E.M.I.’s success was helped by historical connections between H.M.V. and Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.), which employed Zworykin.

The Baird system had electromechanical complexities that put it at a disadvantage over the Marconi-E.M.I.; the latter, completely electrical, had adopted the Swinton concept in 1934. The last Baird transmission was on January 30, 1937.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how BBC TV got on, until an abrupt hiatus beginning in September 1939. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Duane Polo
    May 9, 2020

    In 1950 we had a Muntz with a 7″ diagonal screen. Later we got an 11″ magnifying glass to in large the picture.

  2. Bob DuBois
    May 9, 2020

    I have a digital copy of “The Birth of Los Angeles TV”,and enjoyed reminiscing. I grew up in SoCal (San Bernardino & Long Beach) from 1932-1955. My folks got our first tv when I was a senior in high school(1949). Don’t remember the brand, but it was a 10” screen and was probably twice as deep as it was high or wide! The one program that stands out in my memory was a weekday, afternoon talk/variety show with Al Jarvis, who was a local disc jockey on KLAC radio, and his very young girl Friday, Betty White.

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