Memory Lane: Remembering the first colour TVs

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IT is 75 years tomorrow since the BBC launched its television service.

As The Gazette reported on November 2, 1936, in a brief 14 line story, Postmaster General Major G C Tryon declared open the world’s first regular TV programme at London’s Alexandra Palace.

Ironically, 25 years later –November 1, 1961 – The Gazette’s front page headline was about rival ITV, where a strike by the actors’ union Equity and the Variety Artistes Federation, had started at midnight.

So with all this small screen activity, it seems an appropriate time to share the memories of retired TV engineer John Priest, who spent more than 50 years in the domestic radio and TV industry.

He says he was amused to read the recent Memory Lane article about the 17 local TV retailers who took out a half-page advert in The Gazette in 1961. This was designed to counter a flurry of national newspaper reports that colour would soon render black and white sets obsolete.

John says: “I remember the item and implications clearly. Sadly the sales and marketing people responsible for the combined article did not speak to their own technical staffs who had been avidly following developments in the American television industry where public colour TV transmissions, both experimental and regular, had been taking place for some time.

“There were at least three different and incompatible systems under development, until the culmination in the NTSC system which became adopted all over the US. It was unkindly known by British engineers visiting the US as meaning Never Twice The Same Colour!”

John recalls: “About that time the BBC purchased, I think, two of the new NTSC receivers from RCA in America for evaluation. Based on these tests the English and German electronics industries went on to develop the PAL system, which effectively overcame the problems with colour stability in the NTSC.

“Regular colour TV transmissions started in late 1968, giving the trade enough time to gain some training, experience and sets in time for Wimbledon in 1969. So it was obvious that local retailers had jumped the gun a bit by stating that colour TV was not just around the corner.”

John says: “I was a senior engineer with Reeco Ltd at the time and I and Harold Walters were the first two of their extensive engineering staff to go on manufacturers’ colour training courses. The work involved was highly pressured as we had a lot of new theory and practical work to absorb in a short time. On some courses there was a shortage of sets to work on, as production sets were only just coming on line and we were often working on pre-production and development sets sent up from the labs to fill the gap. Some of these bore little resemblance to the final products which appeared on the market a couple of months or so later.”

John remembers that the first sets which appeared in the shops were 25in screens in large, heavy wood cabinets, which often required at least two people to lift, carry and deliver them and often need several subsequent calls for adjustment as the early sets required a bit of time for ‘settling down’.

“I well remember delivering the first colour TV to the then-chairman of The Gazette, Sir Harold Grime and subsequent visits for adjustments and to trace a source of random interment changes of coloured blotches on the screen. These were eventually traced to magnetic interference from the circulating pump of the central heating system, which was found to be under the floor of the lounge in the corner below the television set!”

John says: “Sets in those days were very expensive, about £500, and would probably be delivered to your door in a Mini van which also at that time cost about £500. This fact was used in later years to emphasise the reducing relative costs of TV sets as by 1980 a 26in set of superior performance and reliability still cost about £500 – but try and get a new Mini for under £2,000.

“My father had a small radio business in Chapel Street, Blackpool, in the late 1920s and early 30s. From him I learned all the basic electronics to get me interested. I was building my own radios at age eight. When I got my first job in the trade I could hardly believe people were happy to pay me a wage to pursue my favourite hobby – and that attitude stayed with me for most of my working life. I started out working for Reeco at their Waterloo Road main branch in 1952 as a ‘Saturday Boy’ at weekends and school holidays and considered myself to be in heaven.”