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The Age of Communication


By the late nineteenth century wireless telegraphy had become established as a means of sending Morse code. Electronic transmission of information and news made the Crimean War of 1854 - 1856 the first in which the media described events almost as they happened. Examples of early electronic messaging machines can be seen at the Royal Signals Museum in Dorset. Early attempts to transmit speech and music were made, first by Marconi, who sent the first international radio message from South Foreland Lighthouse near Dover, to France in 1898. Another notable pioneer was Canadian engineer R.A. Fessenden, who transmitted several programmes from a transmitter at Brant Rock Massachusetts in 1906. Technical advances then continued, particularly during the First World War as a result of the efforts of French military scientists. After the war David Sarnoff in America, later to become head of the Radio Corporation of America, and Arthur Burrows, who was involved in early British broadcasting, foresaw the importance of broadcasting to a public audience.

In Britain after the war amateurs started applying to the Post Office for radio transmission licences, which were granted liberally, and the Marconi company started broadcasting from Chelmsford in 1920. Progress came to a halt when the army claimed that military communications were being interfered with. General broadcasting was largely shut down until 1922, when news of radio's growing popularity in the United States spurred the Post Office into finally settling how radio was to be organised. It was decided that a company known as the British Broadcasting Company (later to become the British Broadcasting Corporation) would be set up, and paid for by an annual licence fee. John Reith was hired as managing director.


BBC radio went on air for the first time on 14th November 1922 from a transmitting station on the top of the Selfridges building in London's Oxford Street. The following day transmitters in Manchester and Birmingham opened up, and by October of the following year eight transmitters were operating, allowing most people a radio service. By 1932 the BBC in London was able to move into its first purpose built building at Broadcasting House, between Oxford Street and Regents Park, a building that is still in use by BBC radio today.


On January 23rd 1926 John Logie Baird gave the world's first public demonstration of a mechanical television set to the Royal Institution. The BBC, which ran radio services from Broadcasting House in London gave technical assistance to Baird, and from 1932 a very limited television service was being transmitted from the basement of Broadcasting House, more as a technical experiment than anything else. Very few people had the television sets that would enable them to watch the tiny, poor quality pictures. In 1934 it was decided to develop the television service further, and a run-down exhibition centre at Alexandra Palace on a hill overlooking Wood Green in London was selected as the site for the first headquarters. The official start of television services was arranged for November 2nd 1936, with a televised opening ceremony at Alexandra Palace. Technical problems meant that all programmes in the first week had to be cancelled. A new start was made the following week, and BBC television grew from there. The televising of the coronation of George VI on 12th of May 1937 was a landmark event for the BBC, and for many people marked the beginning of television as part of their lives. From 1955 independent television channels were introduced to compete with the BBC, leading eventually to the huge range of channels now available on cable and satellite networks.

Tours of many BBC sites are available, including Broadcasting House, Television Centre, and local sites. Click on the link for more details.




The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, London, the oldest working cinema in Britain

The technology of cinema goes back to various moving picture devices of the late nineteenth century. Thomas Edison developed his kinetophonograph as an accompaniment to his audio player the phonograph. At this stage film was still little more than a curiosity. It took the Lumiere brothers to realise that Edison's machine was not an efficient way of reaching audiences. They developed their cinematograph, turning film into a collective experience, with the result that cinema became, certainly for the first part of the twentieth century, the world's dominant cultural form. A programme from the Lumiere brothers original 1895 presentation at the Royal Polytechnic can be seen at the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University, Devon. Film making in Britain started in the early twentieth century, driven largely by the producer Charles Urban. Cinema, however, quickly developed as an international and primarily American business. Attempts to create an exclusively British cinema were arguably counterproductive as they worked in the face of the industry's international nature. Hollywood was willing to take talent from wherever it could be found, and many British actors and film makers went to work there. In the 1970s and 1980s the British studios Pinewood and Shepperton, established a reputation for special effects, and their expertise was used on films such as Superman, Star Wars, Gladiator, and the Harry Potter films.

In September 2003 a British film This Is Not a Love Song was the first to be streamed live on the internet simultaneously with its cinema premiere.



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