Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
The British Broadcasting Corporation
web site is: www.bbc.co.uk
Engineering Information Department was the main point of reference for BBC listeners and viewers. It provided information on new services, advice on reception and answered queries on all BBC engineering matters that were relevant to the general public. It was based in Henry Wood House, Portland Place.
"BBC Engineering" was a series of publications from January 1970 to September 1980 which provided "A record of BBC technical experience and developments in radio and television broadcasting". The numbering started at No.81 so as to continue the sequence of the BBC Monographs. BBC Engineering was edited by BBC Engineering Information Department and a full set is available via this BBC web site. Enter "BBC Engineering No. 81" through to "BBC Engineering No. 101" in the search box.
EID produced many press
releases on significant new engineering developments, new services and new
transmitters. They are available on this web site in the form of five PDF
files as follows:-
Eng Inf, the Quarterly Newsletter for BBC Engineering Staff between 1980 and 1993, was produced by Engineering Information Department and a full set is available via this web site.
EID produced booklets for International Broadcasting Conventions:-
Notes on the history
of BBC Engineering Information Department
Extracts from “BBC Engineering 1922-1972, Edward Pawley”:
“The Technical Correspondence Section conducted a lively exchange of letters with listeners and from the middle of 1925 issued a fortnightly report to Engineers-in-Charge. Extracts from correspondence between 1929 and 1934 ranged from elation to wistfulness:
'The striking of Big Ben came through as clear as a bell.' 'An outside aerial is impossible as the children will swing on it, being close to the school.’ 'My mother spends all her time saying silly things down the loudspeaker. I am 12. . . I have one summer frock and four partly made because she spends so much time over the wireless. She does not know I have written this, so please do not let her know or she will hit me.' 'Will you kindly tell me for what purpose the Greenwich Time Signal is broadcast? . . . it is an irritating little noise.' 'I have a license since four years, and have not yet heard nothink.' 'Since the change in wavelength there has been fading, which I think must be due to the engine not running level.'
Many letters were received appreciating the BBC's advice on reception problems. In those days some radio dealers made blunders such as using a gas-pipe as an earth connection, and the BBC's advice enabled listeners to put things right. The Technical Correspondence Section, under R. T. B. Wynn, showed a great deal of sympathy for the plight of individual listeners. A crippled lady living near the centre of London had been told that her crystal set was useless for receiving Brookmans Park; a BBC engineer visited her and five minutes work enabled her to get excellent reception.
'The British Wireless for the Blind Fund' was opened by a Christmas Day Appeal broadcast by Winston Churchill in 1929. BBC engineers designed special receivers for blind people, starting with a crystal set. By the beginning of 1934 £60,000 had been subscribed to the fund and 24,000 sets distributed, with the support of the industry. J. Underdown of the Engineering Information Department devoted much of his time to this work, in which the Department continues to participate. (By 1970 the fund had provided over 213,000 sets for registered blind persons.)” (NB: Involvement with the WFBF continued until 1998 when EID became “Reception Advice” –AL)
“The extension of the television service during this period and the peculiarities of propagation in the VHF bands made it more than ever necessary to maintain close co-operation between the BBC and the radio receiver manufacturers, represented by the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers Association (BREMA). They also made it necessary to build up technical liaison with viewers and with dealers, many of the latter being represented by the Radio and Television Retailers' Associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Engineering Information Department dealt with technical enquiries from viewers and advised them on their reception problems. For this purpose it was necessary to know about reception conditions in all parts of the country; this information was assembled partly from field-strength maps produced by the Research Department, partly from surveys undertaken by the Engineering Information Department, and partly from interviews with dealers and correspondence.
The use of the VHF bands (and still more the later use of the UHF bands) implied that reception conditions, especially in hilly or built-up areas, could vary over a small area and even between one house and the next, and it was therefore impossible for the BBC to give detailed instructions to individual viewers on the types of aerials they would need. This could be done only by dealers having local knowledge and experience. They have therefore played a major part in improving the general standard of reception. Naturally, some of them have shown greater skill and enthusiasm for this work than others - it is all too easy to blame the BBC transmission system for shortcomings that could be put right by expert attention to the receiving installation. One viewer, who had been advised by the BBC to consult a local dealer, replied that this was useless because his dealer 'did not know the difference between a dipole and a tadpole'.
Fortunately the enthusiasm of most dealers, aerial contractors, and servicemen, and the efforts of the Retailers' Associations, has brought about a general improvement, despite the increasing complexity of the problem resulting from the use of the VHF band and subsequently the introduction of colour television in the UHF bands. Improvements in the performance and reliability of receivers and in the design of aerials have also made great strides towards the goal of trouble-free reception. The annual number of letters received by the Engineering Information Department about television reception problems has varied as follows (the corresponding numbers of television licences are given in brackets): 1950 1600 (approx.) - (343,882); 1960 4694 - (10,469,753); 1970 4230 - (15,882,528).”
“Liaison on such matters was maintained (by EID) with the Relay Services Association of Great Britain. By the end of 1971, there were some two million subscribers to wire distribution systems in the UK, most of them equipped for both television and radio. Care was taken to brief local television dealers, either directly or through the RTRA and the National Television Rental Association, about new stations that were about to open in their areas, so that they could stock appropriate receivers and aerials and instruct their servicemen about any problems that might arise. The public also had to be informed so that they would be prepared with the appropriate equipment when the time came for them to take advantage of the new station. The coming of colour television required a special effort in these directions because of its greater technical complexity, and because, until the regular colour service started, new viewers appreciated the added excitement, and indeed beauty, that it could bring to their screens; it held a mirror up to life, nature and art and was not content merely to present a black-and-white simulacrum or them. Nation-wide publicity was not enough. The message had to be brought to the people in their own areas as colour television spread across the country. Leaflets, booklets, lectures, discussions and exhibitions were supplemented by a specially equipped BBC demonstration vehicle, which contained several colour receivers and measuring equipment and was provided with a retractable telescopic aerial mast on the roof. The use of this vehicle showed that good colour reception was possible in some areas where local opinion thought otherwise. From 1967 to the end of 1971 the colour vehicle gave demonstrations at some fifty locations and over five million people saw them.
Post 1971 (written by Alan Lafferty)
Engineering Information Department (EID) continued it’s earlier Liaison and Publicity roles. Its staff were responsible for the response to letters and telephone calls about technical subjects from members of the public, the television and radio trade, trade organizations, Government Offices and Members of Parliament.
They undertook the publicity for new television, radio, and Local Radio transmitters, including local liaison with dealers, newspapers and members of the public with reception problems. To assist with this work they used three survey vehicles latterly based on Range Rover vehicles equipped with 10m telescopic masts on which were mounted log-periodic aerials; field strength measuring equipment, spectrum analysers and tv monitors enabled the engineer to undertake accurate measurements of new transmitters, and resolve reception problems in difficult areas.
EID continued to produce coverage maps of the main transmitters, and the popular “pocket book” listing all BBC transmitters (later a joint publication with the IBA). These were complemented with a range of leaflets and booklets offering general advice about reception matters.
Publicity was also given for BBC Engineering innovations by way of press releases, the glossy bi-monthly “BBC Engineering” magazine and involvement with the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), initially held bi-annually. The press releases formed the basis for “Eng Inf” a quarterly magazine for BBC engineers and operational staff. Liaison with industry was maintained through meetings with, amongst others, BREMA, RETRA, BSI, The Consumers Association, CAI, DTI, RIS, IEE, and the EBU.
In November 1978 EID staff were heavily involved the Wavelength Changes brought about by the need to reduce interference from foreign medium and long-wave stations as the result of an ITU conference. The Department staffed the main BBC telephone help-lines for two weeks after the event, and handled the several hundred thousand letters that daily arrived by the sackload. Quote of the event was to be made by Head of Radio Publicity, Mike Colley “Well if you don’t watch tv, and don’t listen to the radio, there is little that I can do to help you, goodnight!”.
Subsequently EID staff gave advice and technical assistance to remote communities who had lost their tv signals because the old 405 line tv system had closed down. “Self Help Schemes” were authorized by the Government and EID became part of the licensing process.
In 1994 EID was downsized, combining the essential elements of public liaison, publicity and promotional activities into one Section of the newly created “Viewer & Listener Information Department.” The other two sections were the BBC Correspondence Section and the Information Office (aka “Duty Office”). The department was nominally placed in Information and Archives, part of Services Division in BBC Resources. This arrangement was uncomfortable, since all of the staff spoke for the BBC as a whole, and not just the Resources part of it. In 1997 they transferred to BBC Corporate Affairs, and in 1998 EID ceased to exist, being re-named “Reception Advice”, and becoming part of the London based BBC call-centre most of which was outsourced to Capita in Belfast.