Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
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Prospero Article: June 2008

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This article about BBCeng appeared in the June 2008 issue of Prospero, the newspaper for retired BBC staff.
The version below contains links to relevant parts of the web site.

Recollections of BBC Engineering

Technologists working for the BBC and its contractors do a splendid in job bringing us new services, but there was a time when such people were called engineers and Engineering Division formed a substantial part of the BBC. 

They created the infrastructure that enabled performers to reach massive audiences and they pioneered numerous innovations that have been enjoyed by the public for decades.  This generated huge increases in licence revenue to plough into programme making, until the point of saturation was reached. 

Engineers were always keenly aware of the BBC's programme making focus and they continued to implement more technological innovations to generate very significant economies.   It is a story that doesn't attract interest from a vast audience, but thousands of people were involved over the years and they are proud of their achievements, so it seems right to make sure that it is recorded.

The definitive record for the first 50 years is the book "BBC Engineering 1922-1972" edited by Edward Pawley.  This tomb was published by the BBC and copies now fetch a high price due to scarcity.  Subsequent achievements have been recorded in various publications, but there remains a concern that many of the records and memories might evaporate.  This has been recognised by several people who have written books and produced web sites, so hopefully such work will continue, but there is still some way to go.

BBC Transmission formed a large part of Engineering Division and a book was published to mark its history up to the point of its privatisation in 1997.  About a thousand copies have now been sold (raising money for charity) and many of the sales were via a web site established for the purpose. 

Members of Designs Department, which was part of Engineering Division until 1987, then expressed enthusiasm for a web site covering its history, so this was created.

Such web sites depend upon contributions and these started coming from people associated with other engineering activities as well, so eventually was born.  It is structured to cover all aspects of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997 but it is by no means comprehensive. 

It doesn't need to be because there are several excellent web sites that concentrate on certain areas and these are linked on relevant web pages.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of scope for improving and contributions, both large and small, are welcome. For example, if you remember attending a course at the Engineering Training Department and still have the course photograph, how about adding it to the collection on the web site?  There is already a fascinating article on Wood Norton during the Second World War, but perhaps you could write a sequel.

The web site has a number of videos including "BBC Transmission - Aiming at the Future" which lasts 18 minutes and provides a good overview.  There are also major written contributions, with pictures, on several of the more interesting transmitting stations

An example from the other end of the broadcasting chain is a contribution on the first colour television from London to Moscow.   It's not all technology though because many of the contributions are personal accounts of life in the BBC and the web site is used to facilitate reunions and show pictures of the people involved. 

An Information Exchange page enables enthusiasts to get in touch and several people have been pleased with the result.  A full set of Eng Inf, the Quarterly Newsletter for BBC Engineering Staff between 1980 and 1993, provides a superb record of achievements. 

Listings and information about BBC designed equipment provide a reference for anyone interested and if you want something really obscure how about the earliest surviving Designs Department report on Polytetrafluorethylene Plastic Bearings which was approved in 1949 by the Head of the Department H.B.Rantzen.  I believe that his daughter contributes to a rather different aspect of broadcasting!

Left: Martin Ellen and Norman Shacklady, editors of On Air, in front of 2LO, the BBC's first transmitter. Left: Designs Department staff in 1950, photographed in the concert hall of Broadcasting House.  Harry Rantzen is in the middle of the front row.

Martin Ellen

I would like to thank Peter Gearing, the editor of Prospero, for publishing the article and agreeing that a copy should appear on BBCeng.

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