Johnny worked in the RAF as a Junior Scientific Officer engaged on the
compilation of technical information for R.A.F use on high speed radio
Telegraph (teleprinter) circuits. It was during this period that he
co-authored his first book on FM (see “Publications”).
He joined the BBC in 1948 as a Probationary engineer (Grade D) in Radio
Outside Broadcasts and was somewhat bemused to be told on his first day:
“pick up the gear son, we’re off to No 10 Downing Street”!
Following a subsequent transfer to Engineering Training Department as a
technical author, Johnny became well known though his writing partnership
with S. W. Amos which resulted in numerous articles on frequency modulation
and allied subjects.
He transferred to Designs Department in 1960, working on VHF television
translators and other radio frequency systems. During the course of
this work he developed a variable-inductance modulator and held a joint
patent for this circuit technique. It was used in BBC FM drives in the
60's and subsequently incorporated in replacement drives (TM4L/1 family)
which are still in use today (2014).
He did pioneering work on automatic monitoring techniques and this led to
his promotion to Section Head. Then in about 1971 he became Head of
Radio Frequency Section.
This was an era when the BBC was expanding both its UHF TV and FM
coverage. The BBC needed “transposers” in volume: equipment which could
receive off-air transmissions from main stations and re-broadcast them on
different frequencies. Under his leadership several very successful designs
were produced, including the “Blue Streak” design in 1976. This was
followed by a multi-channel transposer dubbed “Silver Streak” in 1980, which
was licensed to CML Ltd. who manufactured them in large numbers for both BBC
and IBA use.
Other projects undertaken by Johnny’s section included several music
links for Outside Broadcast and Local Radio use, a UHF Studio Talk-back
system, a comprehensive UHF TV test-set, high-power radio microphones, FM,
TV and AM monitoring receivers, and a comprehensive catalogue of FM
transmission and reception equipment (required for both the expansion of the
network, the introduction of mixed polarisation, the re-engineering of main
stations and the expansion of local radio). The FM catalogue included
transmitters up to 4kW and receiver-drives used in large numbers for FM
filler stations: this equipment was licensed to Eddystone radio, and the
resulting royalties earned the BBC significant income.
Johnny held a firm belief in the importance of having a laboratory
equipped with first-rate test equipment, and he successfully negotiated the
largest slice of the departmental budget year after year!
Johnny exemplified all the qualities which made the BBC an institution of
excellence in the post-war period, and he was very much a leader by example.
A first class engineer himself, he had a natural talent for coaching,
motivating and enthusing his staff. He was also a pioneer of “management by
walkabout”; his approach through the lab invariably accompanied by a
When he retired from the BBC in 1985 he continued his interest in the
field of radio frequency engineering, joining Aerial Facilities as a
consultant/designer, and also Surrey University where he supervised
practical experiments for undergraduates and conducted research into RF
filters, for which he was awarded a PhD.
Here are some individual memories of Johnny
All this might give the impression that engineering was Johnny’s only
interest. Far from it. Others know much more than I do about the sailing in
which he was able to indulge after he had retired. He was also a man of wide
cultural interests. We went to the opera together and I remember discussing
with him the composition of Stubbs’s Couple of Hounds’ in the Tate Gallery
after we had reconnoitred the possibilities of the Milbank Tower as a site
for a microwave link. After retirement we met for dinner from time to time
and the conversation was far from confined to matters engineering. My
memories of Johnny are of a very fine engineer, a good friend but above all
a very nice man. May his memory be a blessing.
He was a terrific mentor in the days before it was considered a
desirable, let alone essential, part of the skill-set of a senior manager.
The things he taught me during my time working for him, both about how to do
electronics but probably more about how to manage, certainly stood me in
good stead over the rest of my career at the BBC. He once accused me of
having the letters ‘BBC’ running through my veins in much the same way as
the letters in a stick of rock – but I don’t think my letters were (are?) as
prominent as the ones in his veins!
Johnny Johnstone was on my interview board in 1969 and he
gave me the opportunity to join Designs Department. I worked in RF Section
for several years under Johnny’s inspirational leadership and I remain extremely
grateful to him for the encouragement and guidance he gave me. On many occasions
he approached me in the laboratory to discuss my projects and he filled sheets
of paper with almost indecipherable mathematics. Handwriting was not his
strong point, but his engineering and mathematical guidance was
Johnny was my section leader for over a decade: polite, thoughtful,
honest, patient, and with excellent intellectual credentials: perhaps most
importantly he had a real flair for mentoring and encouraging those under
his wing. He was never very comfortable when thrust in front of an audience,
but equipped with a pen & memo pad he was highly articulate. When he retired
he bequeathed me a poster which adorned the wall of his office: it's a large
ginger cat. Johnny was very fond of cats.
As a customer of Designs Department I was always impressed with the care
that Johnny took in ensuring that the equipment he designed not only
fulfilled its purpose but was easy for the user to operate and maintain.
Always willing to pass on his knowledge and expertise, he would take time
and exercise considerable patience in explaining his designs to those of us
who were technically far less gifted than he was. I lost touch with him
after his retirement but met him again during the last few years following
the opening of a new concert hall in Guildford. Classical music was another
of his many interests. He was not enjoying the best of health by this time
but he had not lost any of his infectious enthusiasm or the mischievous
sense of humour which had made conversations with him during our working
days so enjoyable. A lovely man.
Further contributions welcome.
Frequency modulation engineering Christopher E. Tibbs, G. G. Johnstone.
Chapman and Hall (1947). 2nd edition (1956) Wiley
Radio and Electronic Laboratory Handbook M G Scroggie & GG Johnstone
Improvements in and relating to
crystal-controlled transistor oscillators
Improvements in and relating to variable
reactance impedance devices
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