Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
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Designs Department - Reminiscences

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First Steps in Designs Department
by David Savage (Designs Department 1949 to 1987)

At the end of my two and a bit year stint in the REME I was summoned to Bentink House for an interview with an Engineering Establishment Officer with a view to being reinstated into the BBC's Engineering Division. The date was 22nd. March 1949.  I was rather expecting that I would be returning to Lines Department, which I had originally joined in the May of 1944, but what I was offered was a post as a Technical Assistant (Class II) in Designs Department, at a weekly wage of 7.2.6. This really was starting again at the bottom.  I didn't know much about Designs which had been formed some three months after my call-up, but with the then current problems of post-war resettlement of staff one was wise to take what one was given!

I was instructed to report to Mr. H.B.Rantzen, Head of Designs Department (HDD), in Brock House on 28th March.  Of course one didn't actually get to see the great man himself, (I believe that in any case he was on an attachment to the United Nations in New York at the time), what one got was a re-run of the procedure followed when joining Lines Dept. five years before, i.e. report to the formidable Mrs. Peters (HDD's secretary), sent to see Charlie Field (who had also been transferred from Lines to Designs as Head of Services Section), and allocated by him to serve in the Test Room in the basement of Bentink House, which was, (and is), located in Bolsover Street.

The basement of Bentink House turned out to be quite a convenient location.  It was well away from the management, it was right next to the well equipped departmental Model Shop (convenient for lunch-time projects), it was just across the passage from the tea bar which was shared with secretaries from the Engineering Establishment offices on the building's upper floors, (the establishment officers themselves rarely deigned to descend to the depths themselves), it was just round the corner from the BBC canteen in Yalding House, (then home to Music Dept., now home to Radio 1), there was a shoe repair shop just across the road, and in the next street one could get a haircut in an establishment patronised by Prince "I got a horse" Monolulu!

The Test Room was managed by George Dilworth and staffed, when I joined, by John Shelley and TA.s John D. (Tommy) Tucker, Ray Matchell, Les Stokes, and Owen Vincent.  The job consisted of the setting to work, testing and reporting on the performance of pre-production models of new designs of equipment of various types from all sections of the Department, and the feeding back of comments and suggestions (hopefully constructive) to the designers.  Among equipments with which we dealt were the first Automatic Monitor Minor and Majors and a range of audio units.  The work was quite interesting, but I think we all hankered after getting out teeth into some proper original design activity, preferably in the then rapidly developing field of television.

To obtain some background in the latter I soon started work on the construction of a single channel TV receiver, purchasing the components from Premier Radio of Praed Street.  This was finished by the autumn of '49 and greatly impressed the family.  The display device was an ex War Department 6" VCR 96 crt.  This being very green I soon replaced it with a VCR 517 long persistence job, salvaged from a surplus airborne PPI unit, which gave a somewhat more acceptable display.  The unit also yielded a 2" crt which I utilised in theconstruction of a small oscilloscope.  I experimented with photographing the TV display using an old quarter plate camera, the bellows of which could be extended to get up close up to the small screen and, as a gimmick, could produce a (wet) negative plate within a few minutes of exposure (precursor of the Polaroid!).

I also realised that if I was to make any progress within the organisation I needed to get a qualification recognised by the Corporation, so I went for an interview at the Regent Street Polytechnic, (now the University of Westminster), and arranged to enrol in the second year of a three-year Ordinary National Certificate Course of evening classes.  This involved three evenings a week plus most of the weekend writing up notes and lab. work.  There was just time for a sandwich in the basement of the BBC Club building in Chandos Street between finishing work and starting at the Poly. The project was made a little less daunting by the knowledge that I would be joined by Jeff Jowers and Gordon Rankin, TA.s from the Brock House based Sound Studio Section.  We started in the autumn and discovered that among the teaching staff were messrs Granthier and Harry Chandler, who were engineers from Freddy Stringer's Brock house based Sound Transmission Section.

John Shelley was the first to make his escape from the Test Room, landing himself an engineering job in Neville Watson's Television Transmission Section in Broadcasting House.  Meanwhile Harry Rantzen returned from the States and announced that he would be resigning from the BBC to take up a full-time job as Director of Telecommunications with the UN in New York.  His successor was to be Dr. Rendall who had been AHDD.  They had both previously been employed as long-line engineers by the Standard Telephone Company, as had Section Heads Freddy Stringer and John Holmes (who remained in Lines Dept).  A group photograph of HBR and most of the members of Designs was taken in the BH Concert Hall on 6th. March 1950, just prior to his departure.

Members of BBC Designs Department and the former Lines Department.
6th March 1950.
See the DD in 1950 page for a larger version of this picture.

First Cross-Channel TV

The summer of 1950 saw the first live TV OB from outside mainland Britain,  on 27th August.  BBC microwave links were set up from Calais to London via Dover, Lenham and Harvel.  The London dish was mounted on the roof of the Senate House of London University, and from there the signal was routed to BH over a video circuit derived by Stuart Padel and Dennis Packham on a length of standard 20 lb. telephone cable.  The programme from Calais was successfully mounted on the evening of 27th August, opening the way for the formation of the Eurovision network.

1 2 3 4

1. First picture to be transmitted from Europe at c.21:40,  2. Hotel de Ville, Calais: Floodlit,  3. Clocktower,  4 Roof,

5 6 7

5. Compere on stage,  6 Calais en Fete: The scene in the square,  7. Hotel de Ville in 2004

In the summer of 1950 I managed to pass an English exam which was one of the many hurdles to be jumped on the long path to IEE membership.  Then at the end of 1950 I applied for a TA1 vacancy in the TV Transmission Section, and was successful at the subsequent board, getting promoted on the 22nd January. (Ray Matchell soon left for Rank-Cintel, and John Tucker went to the organisation running Radio Luxemburg, but later went on to become organiser of the IBC exhibitions).

At that time the Television Transmission Section was located on the ground floor of BH on the southern side of the building. The Lab. was in room G29, the junior engineers and TAs used G27 as an office, whilst the section head and senior engineers shared G26. The intervening room, G28, contained the line termination bays for all incoming and outgoing vision cables.  This was initially known as the BH Repeater Station, and manned by DD staff, but it had by the time I joined become the TV Switching Centre, operated by Lines Dept. personnel under the direction of Derek Preston, with whom we had a close working relationship. Transmission Section members at this time included Walter Anderson, who went on to attain a senior position in the IBA, Harold Anstey who subsequently became an SE Tel., Lenni Holt, Desmond Morse, who became Head of Comms. Dept., Stuart Padel, who became a DD section head, Gordon Parker who was to become HDD, Ken Quinton who subsequently headed-up Robert Maxwell's cable TV enterprise, and John Shelley who became a DD section head.  There were just two TAs, me and Dennis Packham who, at the start of Independent Television, made the spectacular leap from TA1 to Chief Engineer Tyne and Tees TV.

The section was led by Neville Watson who was subsequently to become HDD, and then CE Tel. at Television Centre. He was an "engineer's engineer", starting as a battery boy in Newcastle in 1933, and working his way up through the ranks.  He remained a hands-on type who gained the respect of all his colleagues.  He expected his staff to be fully committed to the job and to give of their best, but he was very considerate of their welfare on a personal basis.  One couldn't want for a better boss.

When I arrived the section was engaged in an "all hands to the pump" operation against a deadline to get six pre-production TV/TG/1s to work satisfactorily.  This test signal generator was a large rack-mounted piece of gear, quite advanced for its time, full of valves, and capable of producing 2 micro sec. pulses, 40 micro sec. bars, 50 Hz bars, and saw teeth.  It also enabled these signals or a sine wave, to be carried on standard sync, pulses.  Stuart Padel had already designed and produced a group delay measuring set.  A video oscillator had been developed in house and built by Wayne-Kerr, and these equipments, together with an EMI Type A waveform monitor, (subsequently to be replaced by the Type B monitor developed by Lenni Holt and Gordon Parker) meant that the section was probably now in a better position to thoroughly test and measure the performance of any item of TV transmission equipment than anyone else in the country, and that included the Post Office!

One of my initial tasks was to sort out and test a batch of sync. pulse stabilising amplifiers which had been built in "bathroom-blue" portable boxes to a DD design by Pye.  To do this I had first to find out how a black-level clamp worked - you had to learn quick in this section! but there was always plenty of support from colleagues.  Two units were required for the opening ceremony of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and I just got them finished in time, taking them down by taxi to the South Bank on the preceding afternoon.

I suppose my first proper solo design exercise was the adaptation of one of these stab. amps, to deliver a whole 25v peak-to-peak of 50/50 picture/sync, ratio video signal with which to drive the modulator of the Alexandra Palace transmitter.  Luckily this project was to receive the Watson seal of approval.  But my "default" activity at this period was to assist Stuart Padel in the development of a set of flexible video equalisers.  In those days, before the advent of the longitudinal stop coil, the only medium for the transmission of baseband video over significant distances was balanced pair cable.  The first cable to be designed specifically for the transmission of video signals was the EMI balanced pair laid between BH and AP in 1936 (see picture).  This was a low-loss, largely air-spaced single pair cable with a characteristic impedance of 186 ohms.  But before the war Messrs Rendall and Padel had pioneered techniques for deriving video circuits on lengths of standard telephone cable over distances of up to around two miles.  In the late forties further lengths of EMI cable were laid around central London in order to form a "ring main", terminating in the BH switching centre, which enabled OB signals to be injected from a number of strategically placed locations such as Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, Victoria, Marble Arch etc. etc.  It was to cope with the equalisation of all these different circuits on a day-to-day operational basis that this new equipment was required.  (Now-a-days it seems that transmitting a signal over as little as a couple of hundred yards point-to-point requires a 44,000-mile satellite link, but it saves an equaliser!)

Any way the project was completed satisfactorily, and by using a DD designed balanced sending amplifier at one end, and an STC RP551 rep. coil at the other, it was possible to derive a range of good quality local circuits without any involvement of the Post Office.  Arriving at initial settings for the equalisers involved a certain amount of taxiing around London.  In those days Stuart was not greatly enamoured of this new fangled pulse testing, steady-state was the thing, so painstaking frequency runs using an accumulator powered Moulin valve voltmeter were the order of the day.

The summer of '51 brought a trip to the nearly completed Holme Moss transmitting station to assist in my first acceptance test on a long-distance Post Office provided link, in this case from Sutton Coldfield.  This was a several-day affair, involving the full panoply of tests, including the use of the group delay measuring equipment.  What I remember is that although it was high summer every where else, the top of the Moss was shrouded in cloud, such that for most of the time one could see only the first few feet of the mast.

The summer also brought confirmation that the ONC had been achieved.  Armed with this information I entered into negotiations with Dr. Rendall with a view to arranging a day release scheme for the three of us to continue our studies, and this was eventually agreed.

So that was it.  The outlook was two further years to HNC, with parallel evening classes for the endorsement subjects required by the IEE, then hopefully an engineer slot within the Department, followed eventually by achieving full member status within the IEE.  Some way to go, but at least I had made a start in the broadcast transmission engineering vocation which was to occupy me in various forms for most of the remainder of my working life.


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