Saturday 30 January 2010

Using Replicant Technology as an Aid to Understanding Television History

Paul Marshall "Using replicant technology as an aid to understanding television history"

Paul Marshall is a full time engineer in the flight simulation industry and is a part time PhD student at Manchester University studying the origins of electronic television. He's a busy guy! At the end, he'd like to open some sort of museum to showcase his vintage broadcast collection.

The first use of the word 'television' was actually in 1900 - it means 'seeing into the distance', an idea which stretches back into antiquity. In a way. museums see into the distance - both past and future. Both televisions and museums allow us to see parts of the world we couldn't experience physically.

And like museums, the history of television is particularly political. Different nations and different corporations raise up different individuals as champions and originators of the medium. It's hard to find out the truth, and it's hard to find out what the precise nature of the television system used actually was. Which is where the replicant technology comes in.

From the late 1920s, we'd had an electromechanical television system. With twelve images per second, it was flickery and dim. Something else was needed.

Particularly in the US, a large amount of money began to be put into electronic television - given that this was in the time of the Great Depression, they must have been confident. In the UK, the BBC had been criticised for the original Baird System. There were two companies working on electronic television - Baird's, ironically, and EMI-Marconi. It was these systems which competed in what might be termed "The 1936 British Television Standards Competition".

This was set up by the Government. Paul shows us both the systems, on monitors from the 1970s. Baird's system of 240 lines flickers a lot more, but was a massive leap and had a number of advantages over the EMI-Marconi system. Nonetheless, EMI-Marconi was declared by the government and BBC to be the winner- they did have vested interests, and ever since then, there has been a narrative which suggests the inevitablity of this result. But need this have been the case. The EMI-Marconi system was really not as good as it was painted at the time.

Just goes to show that history very often shows only the winners.

Interestingly, electromechanical television didn't die. A company called Scophony continued to make them - but none survive. Paul would like to make one one day. Perhaps...and don't adjust your set...