After its creation in 1922, the BBC forms a Research Department in April 1930. It is concerned mainly with short-wave radio, developing studios and a broadcast system capable of transmitting more than one programme at the same time. In 1936, having worked with John Logie Baird on early television broadcasts, it opts for the 405-line system developed by rival company EMI-Marconi and the BBC Television Service is born.
Development continues apace after a hiatus in work brought about by the Second World War. The latter half of the decade sees the start of FM radio, early tests of colour television and new magnetic recording techniques that make it possible to record and re-record audio with minimal loss in quality and easier to edit recordings. In 1949 the Research Department moves to Kingswood Warren, a nineteenth-century Gothic mansion in south-east England.
Work begins on stereo radio, but this is the decade of television, with a new ribbon microphone and telerecording equipment developed for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. The first transatlantic television transmission follows, the use of transistors in commercial equipment promises a boost to the communications industry, and in 1958 viewers of the Panorama programme watch a demonstration of VERA, the Research Department’s first ever video tape recorder.
TV and radio production continues to expand throughout the 1960s. Research helps design the world’s first purpose-built complex of television studios, Television Centre, which opens in west London in 1960. Satellite communication is used for the first time in broadcasting with a transatlantic colour television link using a Research Department slide scanner in 1962, and by the close of the decade the nation has seen a transition to colour TV.
The pace of development quickens as the use of integrated circuits for signal processing leads to NICAM compressed digital audio, the Sound-in-Syncs transmission system, RDS, the first experiments with digital sound broadcasting and, in 1974, the launch of CEEFAX.
A debate on how best to exploit the satellite broadcasting spectrum rages during the 1980s: should we use analogue, wait for digital, or something in between? The BBC Microcomputer is developed as part of the BBC's computer literacy programme, the RDS specification for sending data over FM radio signals is devised, and a service launches in 1988. It is also the decade in which 405-line television transmissions, first launched in 1936, come to an end.
The creative work of our engineers means the BBC enters the digital age in the 1990s, with the start of digital radio and television broadcasting and the launch of the BBC website in 1997. The “red button” appears on screens for the first time and in 1993, the BBC’s Research and Designs departments merge to become R&D as it exists today.
Emerging technology continues to challenge the privileged place of television and radio in people’s lives and in the radio spectrum throughout the 2000s. New platforms Freeview, Freesat and BBC iPlayer all launch in this decade, and production is made more efficient as desktop computers and laptops become technically capable of storing large amounts of content.