The BBC Heritage Collection

The BBC Heritage Collection

An interview with Rory O'Connell from the BBC's Heritage collection

Rory O'Connell, who looks after the BBC's Heritage Collection, talks about working with Tardises and Alistair Cooke's typewriter.


Broadcast Technology

The BBC has always been completely dependent on the latest technology and because of that we have a lot in the collection, mainly because engineers, in particular, with a view to history, would often set things aside at the end of its life rather than throw it away. The historic technology includes everything from the earliest BBC microphones, like the classic AXBT microphone, up to the BBC computer.

The BBC was originally set up in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company and its main aim was to manufacture radios, like this early BBC-badged crystal set. It worked by picking up the radio signal on this wire in here, connected to a small crystal, which converted the radio signal to audio, and the listener had to use headphones to listen to the actual programme. You couldn't listen on speakers because it would have taken a lot of power to convert the signal to speakers, you would have needed an amplifier. This one the public could buy, but people did make them themselves from kits that you could buy and, in fact, if you did you only paid half the licence fee, so kits were very popular.

When the BBC came to launch television in 1936 it was faced with a choice of technologies: the mechanical system designed by John Logie Baird, or the electronic system designed by Marconi and EMI. And they couldn't choose which, so they conducted a test broadcast from Alexandra Palace, using both systems on alternate weeks. The Baird system was mechanical and it actually used film, which then had to be developed and converted to a television signal, so there was a time delay involved, whereas the electronic system captured the TV pictures immediately. The EMI Marconi system eventually was selected as the system for the BBC's first high-definition television service, and we have one of the original cameras from that test in the collection. Some items of technology in the collection really show how basic broadcasting could be.

Many people are surprised to see this clock and realise that it was actually the same clock that they were seeing on their television screen every night, and, in fact, it's just a piece of board with the numbers painted on, and the BBC logo underneath could be changed according to the channel. It was simply bolted to the front of a TV camera and then that signal was sent out to your television at home. Similarly, one of the main BBC idents for years was the spinning globe, and it was simply a globe spinning on a spindle against a mirror in the background.

Before the old Broadcasting House was closed to be redeveloped in 2002 we were able to get in and rescue a lot of the original sound effects equipment from the drama studio. This really shows how basic radio could be. There's lots of doors and windows and car doors. There's lots of bells and gongs and chimes. Anything from church bells to door bells. They would have been used on absolutely anything from a comedy to a serious drama. Providing sound effects was a specialist job within radio production. They had to be able to turn their hand to producing any sound that the producer might require.

In the middle of the 1980s the BBC made the decision to design its own computer, the BBC Micro, mainly targeted at schools to try to ensure that there would be one in every school in the country, almost as a sort of gift to the nation. I think this was seen as a continuation of its original educational remit from the early days of Lord Reith.

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