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The four-minute compilation from 1938 exists only because of a technological fluke and the enthusiasm of two television buffs, one in Britain and the other in America where, thanks to freak atmospheric conditions, it was picked up and recorded on a cine camera placed in front of a television screen as the images came in.
Andrew Emmerson, the British enthusiast, spent five years tracking down the recording and believes it is the only surviving example of pre-war live high-definition British television. The flickering black-and-white footage includes Jasmine Bligh, one of the original BBC announcers, and a brief shot of Elizabeth Cowell, who also shared announcing duties with Jasmine, an excerpt from an unknown period costume drama and the BBC's station identity transmitted at the beginning and end of the day's output.
It was made at a time when no technology existed to record live broadcasts directly. Video tape was not perfected until the late 1950s and "telerecording", the quality copying with a cine camera mounted in front of a television screen was not developed until after the Second World War. There are other recordings from the pre-war era, but they are all cine film shot from a camera alongside the television lens, or as in the case of the Demonstration Films, recreated scenes in a shot in a film studio.
The American recording was shown on 26 June 1999 at the refurbished National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.
Mr Emmerson, 50, a freelance researcher and writer on the television industry, said: "Rumours of a recording existing in America have circulated for years, but no one had ever got to the bottom of them. It was known that about this time there had been tremendous sun spot activity, which had a dramatic effect on the ionosphere. Broadcasts from the BBC Television Station at Alexandra Palace travelled less than 30 miles, but because of the sun spots they were being bounced off the ionosphere and picked up 3,000 miles away on the East Coast of America."
"There were reports that RCA, which was working on its own television system, had conducted an experiment to film the broadcasts. About five years ago I decided to check it out, but with no success. RCA could not trace anything, nor could anyone else. Then last year a friend at the American Vintage Wireless Collectors' Society agreed to mention it in their magazine."
One of the respondents was Maurice Schecheter, who worked in a New York television studio. He had a collection of television material and among it was one of the RCA recordings on 16mm film.
"He cleaned it up digitally and transferred it to a video cassette for me," Mr Emmerson said. "I was astounded. This was the oldest and probably the only example of live high-definition television from the pre-war period."
This film footage is from the Archive Collection held and administered by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.
Alexandra Palace Television Society home page
~ APTS ~
Preserving the televisual past for the digital future
This movie is part of the collection: Classic TV
Producer: Alexandra Palace Television Society
Audio/Visual: sound, black & white
Keywords: apts; simon; vaughan; new; york; telerecording; alexandra; palace; jasmine; bligh; elizabeth; cowell; bbc; television; history; 1938; ally; pally
Contact Information: Simon Vaughan, Archivist, for and behalf of Alexandra Palace Television Society. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / web: www.apts.org.uk
Creative Commons license: Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0
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Freestone Slice -
Subject: A strange thing
How I wish there were sound to go with this. I'm curious to know how an American TV set could even display British television; I was under the impression that the two used different formats for encoding the signal.
It's only just possible to discern what's happening here. There are two women speaking to the camera, a costume drama, a cartoon (that looks to me like a mouse and a sauce pan), and a test pattern of some sort. The reception is understandably terrible, but I find that only adds to the charm.
To the last poster, Eklectic: The DuMont broadcasts are floating around, but in the water, not the air. Ernie Kovacs' wife, of all people, was the one who tried to track them down, only to find out that the entire archived DuMont library was dumped into Upper New York Bay in the late 1970s because nobody wanted the trouble of looking after it. Based on my knowledge of film and how it's processed, I find myself hoping that it might have survived the dumping and any subsequent dredging, and simply be sitting down there, waiting for some enterprising soul to go down there and bring back Captain Video.
Subject: This broadcast, a lovely thing from the ether...
seems miraculous to me each time I watch it.
I am old enough to remember the whacky world of analog television, dragged down to earth to our old TV sets by a roof-top aerial (i.e., antenna). Back in the early 60s, I recall receiving New Jersey, Philadelphia, and even Baltimore once, because of some kind of atmospheric condition on those particular nights. This at a time when it was hard to get New York City and Hartford, CT in New Haven, CT where I lived---the "snow" and "ghosting" due to other frequencies interfering (such as the strength of the local New Haven station coming in to compete) with receiving clear signals often kept you from being able to watch an entire show. (I remember it was especially difficult to watch a whole show of Red Skelton, no matter how much I yearned with my little-kid heart). It was a real trip, and all in black and white, too. I hope somewhere in the ether, Ernie Kovacs broadcasts for DuMont are still floating around, and someday someone strangely catches them due to some very odd weather condition...but that's too SciFi, right? After all, this particular stuff was recorded when it was broadcast back in 1938...aw, I can dream if I want to.
That was totally cool.
That is the most incredible thing I've ever seen.
This makes up for all of the kinescope dumping practised by our so-called civilization. Its like time travel-I can now see what BBC television of the 1930's really looked like, instead of my supposition!
Subject: Ghostly Images from a truely lost era in TV
Very little 1930s TV footage still exists today. I think in one country, a few shows produced on film still exist. But with British TV, it's almost all gone, largely because British TV of this era was live with no way to record it until the mid-1940s. This footage, though ghostly and somewhat scary, is almost all that is left. For that reason, it's a must-see for those interesting in early TV.
EDIT: To RoboReview, the other surviving footage from this period include a few minutes of an NBC drama (missing the sound), and several dozen episodes of German television programming that was produced in advance on film.
Subject: The flicker of history
It's remarkable that this signal reached the US, doubly remarkable that anyone was poised to film it, and trebly remarkable that it not only still exists, it will last thru the ages on IA. I hope the national broadcasting museum in NYC has a copy of this.
Does anyone know whether there are other '30s kinescopes or filmed TV shows available to view? (I already saw the German one in this section.)
If anyone wonders why a site like IA is so vital even in the age of YouTube, this is one of a million reasons why.
First, 1938??? This is a keeper! Second, BBC in New York? A double keeper!
Subject: Amazing footage from london
How this survived is amazing, particularly so that it was recorded on film in the USA and survived so many years.
Quality may be sparse, but history is strong, no idea who is on, but I remember tuning in to SW closing my eyes and pulling in the best signal I could.