[THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN NOVEMBER 2011 AND NOT PUBLISHED DUE TO MAJOR DIGITAL DISTRACTION]
The musty smell, peeling paint and draughty corridors of London’s Alexandra Palace probably offer little more comfort today than they did 75 years ago.
It was here, in the exposed south-east corner of this North London landmark that a handful of engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and actors gave birth to a business which today generates trillions of revenue, employs millions worldwide and remains the dominant communications method of the modern age.
On November 2, 1936, the BBC began the first regular public TV broadcasts, making a public service from the experimental work which John Logie Baird had made in the years before. “Ally Pally” was synonymous with TV for a generation of pre- and post-war Brits, and has been home to TV broadcasting of one kind or another for 45 years.
The story of the early steps of TV are well documented, but on touring this now neglected shrine this weekend, some clear themes on innovation and entrepreneurship came into relief.
Scotsman John Logie Baird is credited with inventing and pioneering TV. His experiments in the UK built on, and were created in parallel with other scientists and inventors in Germany and the US. Among them:
Manfred von Ardenne - broadband amplifier (resistance-coupled amplifier), which was fundamental to the development of television
J. J. Thomson pioneer of Cathode Ray Tube
Karl Ferdinand Braun - inventor of the Cat’s Whisker Diode
Guglielmo Marconi - the famous inventor of the wireless telegraph
Paul Gottlieb Nipkow – inventor of the Nipkow Disk, which Baird used successfully to create moving images
Lee De Forest – invented the Audion, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them.
Arthur Korn – experimented and wrote on long-distance photography, the phototelautograph
Kálmán Tihanyi who developed charge storage
It’s arguable that Baird’s system would not have been possible without the work of all of these, and his assembling of different technologies to create the first television pictures was a cumulative effort, with the original discoveries and inventions which went into TV dating back some 50 years.
In many ways Baird “stood on the shoulders of giants” to paraphrase Newton.
Baird was commercially driven and entrepreneurial. Some ten years before the first commercial broadcast he had demonstrated the first TV pictures in 1926. But the TV projects were also heavily financed by significant public investment, with the British Government keen to develop public service broadcasting and accelerating the pace of private companies’ progress towards a scaleable solution.
First mover disadvantage
And like many inventors and pioneers, Baird didn’t ultimately retain control of his invention, nor was it his system which ultimately won out. Despite being the first system to broadcast, Baird’s technology ran alongside the EMI-Marconi system which was eventually chosen as the standard system. In many ways Baird’s pioneering work has all the hallmarks of first mover disadvantage with others taking advantage of the groundwork done by the inventor.
In today’s on-demand environment where Moore’s law on steroids is opening up bandwidth as never seen before, it’s difficult to think of a time where broadcast time was rationed to a few hours a day.
Now the broadcast environment is morphing and evolving, with IP and OTT distribution and personal broadcasting tools providing an exponential rise in the amount of content available. As this happens, it’s sobering to think of the valiant efforts made by these pioneers in draughty corridors of pre-war London which laid the foundations for the first generations of TV and ultimately the next revolution of TV which is taking place in our time.