Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
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Designs Department

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Designs Department's Predecessors
by "L.G." Smith, July 1997
(different title used on original text)

In the early days at Savoy Hill, there was a Development Section housed in a room adjacent to the Control Room on one side, with a Research Section in a room adjacent to the Control Room on the other side.

Equipment such as amplifiers were provided by Marconi or Western Electric. These were huge units in mahogany boxes Ė a mic amplifier for instance was 6 ft. long by 4 ft. high by 2 ft. deep in 1923. Switching was carried out by plugs and jacks housed in mahogany switchboards mounted in desks following standard G.P.O. telephone practice.

Since a great deal of "Design" work was associated with BBC/GPO equipment a section of BBC engineers formed a "Lines Section" and, under a Mr. Atkins (I think ex GPO or STC), were responsible for the rebuild of the first BBC Control Room at Manchester in the mid/late 20ís.

This used rack mounted equipment with overhead cable racks, all finished in a GPO green/grey finish. Control positions continued to use mahogany mounted switchboard type equipment following GPO telephone practice. Programme switching of the lines and studio outputs, however, was attempted using Strowger two motion selectors again following telephone switching practice, with telephone connections using plugs and jacks.

This type of selector switching was never satisfactory. Connections over the selector contacts, although acceptable in telephone practice were noisy and the selector operation was unreliable. They were only kept operational through the efforts of two Senior Maintenance Engineers Ė Messrs. Purslow and Hamilton and were finally replaced by relays with platinum/gold/silver (pgs) contacts in the mid. 30ís.

Following this failure of Lines Section to design satisfactory equipment, a small Designs Section of Equipment Dept. was formed in the late nineteen twenties . This consisted of Mr C.H Colborn and J.E. Locke as engineers with Holden and Mackinley (ex Relay Automatic Telephone Co. of Brixton Hill) as a small drawing office. All accommodated in one room in Avenue House, Clapham.

It is difficult to appreciate that during the late 20ís and early 30ís there was virtually no commercial equipment available up to the standards required by the BBC and components such as transformers, volume controls and resistors for instance were designed and manufactured within Equipment Dept.

There was also at Savoy Hill a "Station Design and Installation Section" headed by Mr. B.N. McLarty. This was responsible for the design of transmitters and power supplies, mains supplies, batteries and charging equipment for all BBC premises. (All studio and control room equipment operated from batteries until 1936).

Close liaison was required between Mr. Colbornís Section and Mr. McLartyís with regard to the provision of 300v H.T., 6v L.T. and grid bias supplies, all from batteries

The first result of Mr. Colbornís Section was the re-equipment of Edinburgh Control Room where the old mahogany desks and tables were replaced by "BBC" grey rack mounted equipment and control desks, using relays with pgs contacts for the main programme switching of studio outputs and incoming and outgoing lines. This Edinburgh project was carried out towards the end of the 1920ís and served as a prototype for the design of equipment for Broadcasting House in 1930/31/32. The production of Broadcasting House equipment required an expansion of Mr. Colbornís Design Section, in particular by the introduction of two engineers who specialised in the design of cableforms and the expansion of the Drawing Office into five draughtsmen, the whole Section being accommodated in an asbestos clad bungalow built in the grounds of Avenue House, Clapham

During the 1930ís this Designs Section carried out the re-equipment of all the Regional Centre Control Rooms and the Section expanded to cover such aspects of technical equipment as the OBA/8 and the first mobile recording van which used disk equipment.

Also throughout the 1930ís Lines Engineers retained some design work that related to the testing and operation of GPO lines, such items as portable repeaters, amplifier detectors and transmission measuring sets, but this equipment was badly designed from the manufacturing and maintenance point of view, many components being only accessible by removing others and the equipment also needed re-designing for rack mounting. This was done by Mr. Colbornís Design Section.

Research Dept. moved out of Avenue House during the 30ís ,first to Nightingale Lane and then to Nightingale Square in Clapham. Whilst there, they were responsible for the design of the OBA/7 equipment as a replacement for the old Marconi GA/2, but this design was a failure, being too heavy and complicated for use at an outside broadcast site. It took two men to carry the amplifier and had a generator for H.T. supply. Many regions took their set to the most used O.B. and left it there. Research Dept. were also responsible for the development of recording equipment.

By 1930, thoughts were being given to a redesign of control room switching equipment to replace the use of relays which had given excellent, reliable service since it had been installed. A motor uniselector was available from Messers. Siemens as used by the GPO to replace the old two motion selector. Some of these were obtained and an experimental bank of six with rhodium plated contacts for programme circuits were set up with associated relay circuits by Mr. H.D. Ellis who had transferred from Research Dept. to work in Mr. Colbornís Designs Section.

This worked exceptionally well and the design of equipment for Broadcasting House Control Room was well advanced when war came in September 1939.

All engineers in Designs Section were scheduled to be dispersed to various operational transmitters, etc. in time of war, it being considered that no "design" work would be required. In practice, much more urgent design work and installation activities were required. Cheap equipment on wooden panels, emergency facilities of all kinds, expansion of overseas broadcasting, etc.

Engineers with design and installation experience were recalled for major projects such as 200 Oxford St., Bush House, Emergency News Headquarters, etc. and continuing work in Broadcasting House.

In 1941, Mr. Colbornís L.F. Design Section was transferred from Equipment Dept. to Station Design and Installation Dept. under Mr. B. H. McLarty.. S.D.I.D. had been evacuated from premises near Broadcasting House to Droitwich at the outbreak of war and some of Mr. Colbornís engineers went with them. Those working in London with Mr. Colborn took up office residence in the Langham Hotel.

As early as 1943/44 thought was being given to post war equipment. A small team under Mr. H.D. Ellis produced the Studio Type "A" Equipment, the first model of which went into service in December 1944. This was the BBC's first mains operated equipment specifically designed for studios.

Between 1944 and 1947 the number of engineers working for Mr. Ellis increased and the name of the Department, of which Mr. Ellisís group formed one section, was changed from Station Design and Installation Dept. to Design and Installation (D.I.D.) in 1946.

From the late 1920ís Lines Dept., whose main responsibility was the close liaison with the GPO in the provision and operation of all BBC line requirements, had been responsible also for the design of equipment directly associated with the testing of lines Ė such as portable tone sources, repeaters, equalisers, etc.

So that in May 1947 a Designs Dept. in its own right was formed from those engineers in Lines Dept. working on equipment design and the group under Mr. Ellis working on studio and control room equipment. Mr. H.B. Rantzen from Lines Dept. was appointed head of the new department and one of the first fruits of this was the production of automatic monitoring equipment.

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