100 years of technology: and a special mention to the Grahams…

Recently these pages have mentioned Arthur Burrows, the first voice on the BBC in 1922 when it employed just four people. In this article Burrow’s connection to Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Joe Bonamassa (see below for a radio-related song) and Spinal Tap is explored. Yes, seriously. This is the link between a journalist from Oxford at the beginning of the 20th century and some of the top guitarists of the rock ‘n roll era decades later. I came across the connection when reading Arthur Burrows’ book.

On page 41 he talked about valves and the problem with “gain”. At first sight that may sound somewhat arcane. But it struck me as so modern yet so timeless at the same time.

Burrows in 1924 remarked how the signal from the studio microphone was amplified and sent – eventually – to the transmitter. He was here talking about a bit of vacuum technology that was relatively new at the time. In the days before the transistor (which, by the way, transformed radio listening from the early 1960s onwards) the valve was the way to amplify signals, both from the mic to the transmitter and then from the receiving aerial of the wireless to the loudspeaker.

When radio broadcasting started in the early 1920s domestic receivers were made from a crystal and a few wires. The reception was quite weak, and only strong enough to power a small pair of headphones. That meant you had to listen at home on your own – or your partner had to sit close by and listen on the other half of the headphones. Thank goodness stereo hadn’t yet been invented. Not convenient. But then along came the valve. It could be used to amplify signals – and even better it could do this both at the receiving end in the wireless set at home and in the sending stages from the radio studio to the transmitter.

Norman P. Hinton in his 1922 book, Wireless for the Home, said without hyperbole, “it’s the most important discovery in modern wireless.” So there. Without the valve, modern radio would not exist as a mass medium in the way it does today.

And in 2021 valves have not (yet) become a thing of the past. Absolutely not, nor will they ever be. Even today I have a number of valves working here beside me. There’s the ones in my parent’s old wireless – which a radio colleague restored for me ten years ago and still does great service.

Then there’s the issue of valves and guitar players. Rock ‘n roll would not exist without them. This Hiwatt is a make favoured by the likes of Pete Townsend, Dave Gilmour and others. It’s a true “British-sounding” amp.

The one in this picture was manufactured in China from a design by a firm based in Doncaster, Yorkshire, England. The matching loudspeaker comes from another Yorkshire company – Fane – with a plant near Leeds.

The point is that the guitar amp is powered by valves. Guitarists will tell you that valves give a warmth to their sound, and also – if they crank the gain on the amp right up – it turns into a gritty monster that spits out chords. That’s what valves do.

And it’s this that Burrows was talking about in his 1924 book: “because it is found that by giving each valve a little work and by not employing it to the limit of its powers the risk of distorting the electric current is much reduced.” So, he’s not turning the gain up too high…

In radio, then, from the first days, the valves were used to gently amplify and coax the signals along. In rock ‘n’ roll fifty years later they were “turning them up to 11” – just to get that glorious distortion. This video clip from the movie Spinal Tap makes the point well… The comedy timing is classic.

Re-reading Burrow’s perhaps over-enthusiastic memoirs about the early months of the Beeb, reminds me that in the early 1920s radio was a completely new technology. It also demanded new ways of working.

The BBC studios couldn’t fit a full orchestra, so they had to leave some of the musicians out. As well as that, the double bass frequencies were so low that they weren’t being picked up by the microphones of the day. Hence classical pieces were “re-arranged” for the radio so that the remaining musicians could all fit in together, and so that the relevant frequencies would come across best. Purists were, quite reasonably, horrified.

Burrows says in his book, that he planned his programmes at least three months ahead. He also wondered if there was anyway he could arrange mobile broadcasting – the forerunner of the radio car: a modern-day staple of the BBC local radio station, and of Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Also, radio allowed the whole of the listening nation to hear the “correct” time. It had all begun at the end of the industial revolution, this obsession with time. Agricultural workers in the fields would use the angle of the sun, and the emptiness of their bellies to work out what time it was. With the coming of the railways, Britain evolved new ways to tell the time.

It was a science that developed rapidly over the one hundred years or so of the industrial revolution. The railways forced standard time on the nation in the mid 1800s. The Great Western Railway ran all its services according to London time from 1840. (No jokes about its modern day equivalent’s timekeeping, please.) Before that Bristol had always been ten minutes behind London, simply because of sunrise and sunset and no other reason than that.

From December 1922 until December 1923, British listeners could set their clocks by the time signal broadcast from the Eiffel Tower. Remember, of course, that the tourist attraction was – from the early 1900s onwards – a cunningly disguised radio transmitter tower…

Then the BBC began broadcasting its own pips at the beginning of 1924, using signals generated by the Greenwich observatory (hence they were known as the GTS or the Greenwich Time Signal). Now railway timetables demanded uniform time across the country. And the BBC was able to deliver that service. For the Corporation it also meant that its regional and local relays could synchronise their programme and transmitter opt-outs.

That was still the case when I worked at the BBC World Service as a current affairs producer. One of the daily news programmes, called “Twenty-Four Hours”, had four editions each day at 0505hrs, 0705hrs, 1305hrs and 2005hrs and had to be exactly 24 minutes and 45 seconds long. One day I over-ran an edition of my show by 2 seconds. I was later told that because of transmitter relay switches, each of which operated at precise moments, the whole of South East Asia listening on shortwave had missed the last two seconds of my presenter’s words. They would have heard “Good”, but not the “Bye”. That’s how essential timekeeping is in radio.

In those times, in 1987, I had an assistant to keep my time with a stopwatch. That meant a lot of mental arithmetic. Today all broadcasters use computer software to work out what we call “back-times”, or the amount of minutes and seconds until the end of the programme. But before that you had to do addition and subtraction to base-60. Perhaps that’s why mistakes could occur. Indeed, today lots of computer playout systems will subtly cut music tracks (we used to call them records) down so that an automated show ends perfectly at the top of the hour. It’s that smooth.

From the mid-1990s until the late 2010s there was software in the BBC called ENPS and RadioMan, used extensively in local radio which did the job, although out of force of habit I still did the calculations by hand on a bit of paper myself. These days the systems – which do pretty much the same job – are OpenMedia and ViLor. A newsreader can produce and present the perfect three minute bulletin to the second for the opt-out to work.

But don’t underestimate the BBC pips. Timekeeping is a crucial part of radio broadcasting. Indeed, the Pips, or GTS, have even taken a leading role in a British film of the Second World War. So important are they that they featured in a comedy called Back Room Boy (1942). Yes, it’s the only film I can find that has the GTS at the heart of its narrative. And it’s not even post-modern… The best bit (during the first five minutes of the film) is when Arthur Askey puts on his silk glove to key the pips – and then flounces out of BH… Do watch it. Askey’s physical humour is wonderful. It’s a great bit of cinema and captures a sense of the pomposity and self-importance of the era amongst some people of that generation.

Eventually Askey’s fiancée leaves him because of his dedication to “the pips”. As a result, he revolts against the officialdom around him and mis-keys the pips. Again, broadcasters decades later reworked Askey’s comedy: this time it was the DJ Noel Edmunds, host of the Radio 1 breakfast show in the 1970s, who had one of his alter-ego characters Flynn in charge of “the pips”, which included “Lofty” the long pip added in 1971 who often needed discipline from Flynn in order not to misbehave. Radio broadcasters have always had immaculately inventive minds when it comes to jokes and sound.

And now, talking about sound, here’s Graham. Yes, a special mention goes to Graham Haines who was a BBC TV sound engineer in the 1980’s. He gave his name to the Graham’s Line Identification Tone System. Previously I’ve talked about the importance of correct audio levels in broadcasting. You can read more here. And here too. Graham’s claim to fame is his GLITS. Seriously. Follow the hyper-links to find out more and to listen to some GLITS. The stereo effect is mind-blowing.

Elsewhere, the BBC’s Third Programme from the 1950s onwards broadcast 440Hz tone (that’s concert pitch A) before each day’s programmes. In the 1950s that was at five-to-six in the evening – on medium wave – before the evening’s transmissions began. It must’ve been tricky to listen at dusk as the winter nights played havoc with reception. The reason for this was that the British Standards Institution requested that all musicians should have access to the correct tuning pitch.

In the 1990s it was still on Radio 3, and the tone came just after 0530 every morning. And then with the advent of 24 hour broadcasting on the station in May 1996, musicians had to look elsewhere to get tuned up…

Now violinists and guitarists use their mobile phones when they want to tune their instruments… It means that every musician now has their own reference pitch at their fingertips. No longer do we have to rely on listening to Radio 3 in the early hours of the morning. Neither do we have to check the time signal on the radio to set our watches. Mind you, hardly anyone wears a wristwatch these days – and the time on your mobile phone is network time, so it’s accurate to the nano-second. I expect. So, today, who remembers, “At the third stroke it will be…”?

How technology has moved on and developed over the decades. No more listening to the Eiffel Tower time signal or waiting for the valves to warm up on the wireless receiver. What are your memories? Tell me about your first radio. Send me a photo if you have one. Drop me a message in the box below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Now for that Joe Bonamassa radio-related song. Listen to the first line of this brilliant performance. And look at all those lovely valve amps…

3 thoughts on “100 years of technology: and a special mention to the Grahams…

  1. Fascinating, & gloriously geeky, if you don’t mind me saying Martin! I like the Spinal Tap clip, and look forward to run down a few other of the wonderful rabbit holes 🙂 . Great stuff

    Liked by 2 people

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