Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
The British Broadcasting Corporation
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Dr G.G. "Johnny" Johnstone

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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 tuneless humming!

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

David Kitson:

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.

Rhys Lewis:

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!

Martin Ellen:

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 first class. 

John Sykes:

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.

New: Bert Gallon

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.


1. Frequency modulation engineering Christopher E. Tibbs, G. G. Johnstone. Chapman and Hall (1947). 2nd edition (1956) Wiley

2. Radio and Electronic Laboratory Handbook M G Scroggie & GG Johnstone ISBN-10: 0-408-00373-1


Improvements in and relating to crystal-controlled transistor oscillators

Improvements in and relating to variable reactance impedance devices

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