TV Hardware 1950s-70s

TV Hardware 1950s-70s

1950s TVIn the days before remote controls you had to get out of your seat to make any adjustments to the television set such as adjusting the volume or changing the channel, etc., with the earliest televisions often only being capable of receiving one or two TV channels that were pre-defined for a particular transmitter by the supplying dealer if not done so at the factory.

VHF Channel KnobThese manual controls often had a great tactile feel to them, especially the VHF channel selector which usually clicked when the knob was turned, and there were numerous other controls for picture adjustment (usually concealed at the sides or rear) which occasionally had to be adjusted due to valve-based circuitry drifting out of alignment, hence the importance of the test card and tuning signal broadcasts prior to the 1980s because they were used to correctly set up a television receiver.

1950s TV Shop - Inside 1950s TV Shop - More TVs 1950s TV Shop - Even more TVs

1950s TV Shop - OutsideSo what were the shops that sold televisions like in the 1950s? The pictures above show a typical example – this was the era before the advent of the big superstore, so lots of receivers were packed into a relatively small shop space (though some department stores also sold televisions, of course). The brand names are mainly unfamiliar, and there’s a complete absence of anything resembling a video recorder. Only one set is showing a picture, and it is Test Card C which was a very common daytime sight in this period.

Soon! Independent TV Let us adjust your set and aerial 'now'The dawn of commercial television (ITV) in 1955 – TV shops in the London and Midlands had signs like this one in the window as retailers promoted the forthcoming ITV service.

 Commercial Television ConvertersIf you already had a TV set and wanted ITV as well…prepare to be converted – at a price, of course. In front is a card promoting Ferguson TV’s. “Fine sets those Ferguson’s” was the slogan used at the time.

Ferguson TVsAnd talking of Ferguson, here’s a selection of Ferguson TV’s and radio’s from the mid 1950s. Ferguson were taken over by the Thorn-EMI empire, which then sold the brand to Thomson (100% owned by the French government), though Thomson has now ceased to exist in the UK. Brands like Alba, Bush and Murphy are now the preserve of retailers and mail order catalogues who basically just use the name for their own-branded products.

Inside an Ekco TVThere were many more brands of television prior to the 1980s, most of which have long since disappeared altogether or absorbed into multinational companies. Here is a picture of the innards of an Ekco television of the mid 1950s.

Philips EL3400Moving forward ten years to 1965, and the introduction of one of the first ‘affordable’ video tape recording machines – the Philips EL3400. It was bulky and used an exposed reel of tape, plus it only recorded in black and white despite colour transmissions being available not long afterwards. It also had no tuner or timer facility, so it was only useful with (sometimes) expensive external ancillary equipment such as a separate television tuner or video camera. However, two years before the EL3400 there was a British recorder advertised for sale called the Telcan that was possibly the world’s first domestic video recorder. It could record approximately 20 minutes of 405 line video and audio onto audio tape; a remarkable feat for relatively primitive technology but was a commercial failure presumably due to the short length of its recordings. Only two examples of the Telcan are known to exist nowadays.

Dancers in front of Large ScreenCompared to the Telcan, the EL3400 was a greater success and certainly had its uses, as a group of dancers watch themselves perform on a large video projection screen. The EL3400 did not come cheap because it used a helical scan recording technique also used by professional recorders like the Ampex Quadraplex (the world’s first broadcast quality video recorder), so it was typically found only in large education establishments or used for industrial applications. Also Japanese companies such as Shibaden and Sony were starting to make their presence felt at this time with recorders like the CV-2000 format reel to reel machines which were soon followed by the U-Matic video cassette that proved popular in the industrial and commercial markets.

Monochrome TVThe common face of television in the mid to late 1960s – black and white, dual standard (though lots of single-standard 405 line VHF-only televisions remained in use for many years) with separate controls for 405-line VHF and 625-line UHF transmissions. This was required since from 1964 the new BBC2 service was only available on UHF.

HMV Colour1967 saw the arrival of the first mass produced colour TV’s for the UK market, though their high price and initial lack of colour programming (BBC2 only until 1969, few transmitters provided a colour signal and not all programmes were in colour) ensured slow sales to begin with. The picture shows an HMV Colourmaster which was typical of the sets produced in the late 1960s. Find out more about early colour television on the Colour Television page.

Philips N1500Fast forward to 1972 – though a few lucky buyers may have had access to one in 1971 – and the launch of the first ‘proper’ ‘home’ video recorder with an integrated tuner and timer, the Philips N1500. This close-up view (disregard the Sony machine just visible) shows the sloping front panel with (from left to right) a recording level meter, tape transport controls, and the 1 day, 1 event ‘egg timer’ clock. Each large Philips VCR cassette could record up to 30 or 60 (later 80) minutes; the six channel selector buttons are visible above the transport controls. The only thing to put off a potential purchaser – apart from the relatively short running time – was the steep price tag. However the N1500 was not generally available until the end of 1973; earlier it was only sold to schools and corporate customers, and these customers remained the main purchasers of such an expensive device. The less than 90 minutes maximum recording time would have limited its appeal to wealthy people who weren’t interested in recording long movies, therefore it tended to be only specialist shops and upmarket department stores that stocked the recorder.

The N1500 was replaced by the N1502 in 1976, which was basically an updated N1500 with a more modern case, a digital timer and a few extra features like a ‘Stop motion’ button which froze the picture on-screen. Indeed the N1502 looked almost identical to the forthcoming N1700 which was known to be in development at the time, so the N1502 was probably produced as a stop-gap.

Keracolor - Front Keracolor - Side Keracolor - Controls

Space oddity…Anyone who walked into the television department of a large upmarket department store (such as Harrods in London) in the 1970s may have been confronted with this space helmet-shaped television known as the Keracolor. This rare model is a design classic, and with 1970s style back in fashion a reconditioned Keracolor retailed in 1998 for as much as £800. Produced in Northwich, Cheshire, there were colour and monochrome versions as well as a smaller portable version, and at least the colour sets used a Decca chassis supported by stickle bricks. (Yes, stickle bricks!) The Keracolor brand was revived much more recently but sadly failed to make a discernible impact on the television world, even minus the stickle bricks.

JVC Videosphere - Front JVC Videosphere - Side JVC Videosphere - Controls

Send in the clones…the 1970s saw the rise of Japanese manufacturers in Europe and elsewhere, displacing many established companies both in the UK and abroad. Many of the Japanese products from this period were heavily influenced by European models; the JVC Videosphere pictured here being another helmet-based design. The right-hand picture shows the set’s controls – the thumbwheel controls (from left to right) are for brightness, contrast, and off-on/volume, plus rotary VHF and UHF tuning controls. The example shown here is rare since this monochrome TV usually had an orange casing; even so, compared to the Keracolor it is relatively affordable with a 1998 price of £330. Incidentally, the pictures of both this and the Keracolor were taken from BBC Two’s The Antiques Show.

1976 was the year that teletext receivers were sold in UK shops for the very first time, enabling news and information to be displayed on a television screen at a push of a button, but they still weren’t widely available for at least another year. There had been a public teletext service operational since September 1974, but at the start there were only three teletext receivers in existence and they couldn’t be bought in shops, though an electronics magazine published a guide to building your own teletext decoder in 1975 for those who were technically proficient enough to build one from scratch. The Labgear external decoder was the first to be manufactured and sold to the public, with four channels selectable using push buttons on the front panel and a wired remote control used to select pages and other teletext features such as hold and reveal.

1972 CEEFAXCEEFAX had been demonstrated by the BBC to the public as early as a news report on 23 October 1972, but IBA engineers had been independently working on their own ORACLE system therefore it took two years for the two incompatible systems to be reworked into a single standard known as teletext and for broadcasts to commence, with the acronyms CEEFAX and ORACLE being used as the two brand names for the BBC and IBA (ITV) services using the same teletext standard. The falling price of digital electronics made teletext much more affordable during the 1980s and proved to be popular in the UK, remaining in use until it was made obsolete by the analogue TV transmission switch off.

1977 saw the mass market arrival of a piece of technology that would prove to be very popular for more than 20 years and is still used by many people today, the VCR… (Pictures copyright: Philips Electronics.)

TV Skiing Denis Norden introduces the Philips N1700 The Philips Time Machine Denis Norden with Philips N1700

N1700 VCRBefore the video cassette recorder (VCR) became popular during the 1980s, it was necessary to explain to potential customers exactly what a VCR was and what it could actually do, and those potential customers may not be mechanically-minded either, so the best person to explain what a VCR did in layman’s terms is someone who is recognisably an expert in television but who isn’t necessarily an expert in things mechanical, namely someone like the writer and presenter Denis Norden, therefore Philips were extremely lucky to be able to have Norden present their promotional video demonstrating the benefits of their brand new N1700 VCR. It’s interesting that Philips chose to describe their VCR as simply a “Time Machine” as opposed to a “Television Time Machine” which would have been a much more precise description of what it could do if perhaps a less eye-catching expression.

N1700 VCR and tapesThe N1700 recorded television broadcasts onto the same size cassette tapes as the N1500, with up to 2 hours of record and play time initially available (Long Play = LP) compared to the 1 hour duration offered by the earlier N1500 series machines (including the N1502 which looked very similar to the N1700); this was achieved by slowing the tape speed down and using improved electronics, therefore recordings were incompatible between VCR-LP and the earlier VCR machines. Even longer tapes were later introduced, enabling 3 hours of recording time on VCR-LP recorders in order to compete with the new VHS and Betamax recorders offered by Japanese manufacturers that were launched in the UK during 1978. (Betamax and VHS had already launched in Japanese/US NTSC markets; 1975 for Betamax and 1976 for VHS respectively, so Philips knew that competition for their product was soon to appear in Europe.)

Switch on Press stop Press record and play Select channel

So using the N1700 is as straightforward as: (a) Switching it on; (b) Selecting a TV channel to record from, using the buttons marked 1 to 8; (c) Press the Record and Play buttons down together to start the recording; (d) Press the Stop button to stop the recording. Simple! (The N1500 was nearly as easy to use with perhaps the added complication of setting an audio record level control.)

Rewinding tapeJust like the earlier N1500/N1502 models, the N1700 VCR recorded television broadcasts onto removable cassette tapes, therefore you had to have inserted a tape into the machine in the first place and ensured that there was enough free space on the tape for a new recording, if necessary rewinding the tape to a suitable point (or the beginning) as shown here, but anyone already familiar with audio cassette recording as most people were at that point during the 1970s would instinctively understand such concepts even if people under the age of 25 nowadays would be even more clueless about VCR’s as the average person would have been in the 1970s. The N1700 did the job it was designed to do on a basic level, but it had no remote control and no picture search facility so you had to make use of a mechanical tape counter and/or the tape compartment window to work out exactly how much tape was left for recording/playback.

Setting the timerThe N1700 did have a basic digital timer capable of recording one programme that had a start time at some point during the next three days, which at least was an improvement over the first Philips VCR N1500 that could only manage a recording start time during the next 24 hours (and was a mechanical timer similar to that used on an old cooker); the N1700 timer was set using a sliding control which was moved one step at a time from left to right, setting the day, start time, and programme duration in that order. Simple and relatively foolproof if not the last word in sophistication, but anything more complex would have made the N1700 too expensive when Philips was trying to keep the overall product cost down.

 Optional cameraIf you were really wealthy in the 1970s, you could not only afford a VCR but also have the disposable income to buy an optional camera to plug in the back of it, meaning that you could record home movies on your VCR as long as the lead between camera and VCR was long enough to reach where you wanted to record; fine for recording children playing in the living room or perhaps in the garden from the patio but useless for many other parts of the house or outside. Also the cheap cameras only recorded in black and white, therefore colour recording required additional expense as well as good lighting because the camera tubes weren’t very sensitive to light, so that candlelit dinner party recording may turn out to be a complete washout unless very bright lights were used.

End credits Copyright message An Illustra production

Denis Norden not only presented the promotion but contributed to its script, being a famous scriptwriter himself having worked alongside Frank Muir amongst others in the past, and this showed in the humourous touches employed including various interactions with his wife (whom you don’t actually see), such as getting ready to go out therefore being able to set the VCR to record something whilst away, etc.; this promotion wasn’t just a factual explanation of how to use a video cassette recorder.

Some of Denis Norden's other favourites... Skiiing Canoeing Land yachting

After the practical lesson there were three films intended to be shown in shops for demonstration purposes; skiing, canoeing and land yachting. The skiing film had an accompanying musical soundtrack (Psyche Rock by Pierre Henry) whilst the others featured a natural soundtrack, though there’s another version of the canoeing film with Psyche Rock music also used as a shop demonstration for the N1700.

Grundig produced its own SVR format based on Philips VCR-LP tapes but offering even longer recording times, though it wasn’t popular due to poor availability combined with a near absence of pre-recorded tapes. By 1978 the Japanese-developed Betamax (Sony) and VHS (JVC) videotape formats reached the UK, both offering longer recording times and a wider choice of recorders from different manufacturers compared to Philips’s VCR-LP format. Philips countered by offering a 3 hour tape for the N1700 and the Philips recorder was still the best-selling VCR in 1979 despite the new competition. Philips was also developing a new Video 2000 tape format which unfortunately didn’t reach the market until 1980 when VHS in particular was rapidly becoming established due to greater support from dealers and popularity with schools.

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Colour television

Plans for colour television in the United Kingdom date back as early as 1943, when the top-secret Hankey committee was set up by the wartime Government to make recommendations for the reinstatement of the Television Service for when World War Two was over. However black and white television had already established itself to a reasonable degree prior to 1939, plus the technology for colour television had not quite developed into a practical proposition. Also of course immediately after the war the country’s economic resources were being stretched simply providing essentials such as building new homes and factories to replace what had been bomb-damaged, so a new colour service was out of the question for at least ten years.

Meanwhile America, which was largely uninvolved in the war until nearly the end, was busy developing and refining television technologies developed by Europe and itself, which over time evolved into a standard laid down by the National Television Standards Committee, or NTSC. However this NTSC system suffered from being the first of its kind – the system has fundamental colour hue inconsistency problems (especially with early receivers), hence its unofficial title of ‘Never Twice the Same Color’.

ColourisationPrior to the 1960s, this is how a few people had their first view of ‘colour’ television – in the 1950s you could buy a ‘colourising’ filter, place it over your existing black and white screen, and let your imagination do the rest… John Logie Baird, the pioneer of television, was working on stereoscopic colour television shortly before his death in 1946, and the Americans were conducting experiments. But the technology was very complex; the problem was how to transmit colour information alongside an existing black and white image, therefore maintaining ‘backwards’ compatibility with existing receivers.

BBC Colour CameraFrom 10 October 1955 the BBC experimented with colour television, firstly with a 405 line version of the American NTSC system – the first generally available electronic-based system of colour transmission designed for backwards compatability with existing monochrome transmissions. Low power test transmissions were from Alexandra Palace (one of the original studios being re-equipped for the purpose), using specially made receivers, but to start a public 405-line colour service at this stage would result in Britain having to commit long term to the pre-war 405-line standard which was out of step with continental Europe (which used the superior post-war 625 line system).

BBC Colour Test BBC Experimental Colour Transmission

The promotional film This Is The BBC gives an insight into one of the London-only experimental colour television tests performed after closedown during the late 1950s. Unless you were one of the small number of people who had access to an experimental colour TV receiver, anyone who caught a glimpse of these tests at home would of course have only seen them in black and white.

Colour StudioThe song used in this particular test broadcast was “Early one morning”, and the participants had to wear different makeup compared with that used for monochrome broadcasts as well as brightly-coloured costumes featuring different colours.

Colour MonitorsA major problem with early colour television equipment was its unreliability combined with the huge number of adjustments that were required for a good quality picture. The colour television receivers used for the BBC tests were individually handbuilt by companies such as Bush and Philips, with various specialist components such as colour television tubes having to be sourced from America; the sets themselves were designed to be easily maintainable by engineers despite their huge complexity, which was particularly true of the receivers constructed for the later PAL tests.

Colour Test StudioLater the French developed SECAM (Sequential Colour with Memory), and Telefunken in Germany developed PAL (Phase Alternate Line) which represented two differing approaches of solving the colour problems encountered with NTSC, and the BBC experimented using both, though there were other problems to be solved. The insensitivity and inaccuracy of early colour tv cameras and its associated circuitry meant that without adjustments the resulting picture either had a colour cast and/or made flesh tones look too red, so extra studio lighting and make-up was required. In 1961 a committee meeting in Stockholm allocated UHF frequencies for 36 European countries, enabling the Government to plan ahead.

Colour TV DealerAfter much deliberation, the government chose the PAL system – which although was more complex (hence expensive) it gave the best results. Most of Europe also chose PAL, and BBC2 started its UHF 625-line colour service on 1 July 1967 with Wimbledon tennis coverage (there were a few earlier test transmissions), though initially only a few programmes in the schedule were actually in colour. BBC2’s first colour ident was simply the standard ‘2’ logo electronically-tinted pale blue.

BBC2 Colour Spots BBC2 Colour Cube Ident

November 1967 saw the ‘official’ launch of colour programming on BBC2 with a new ident featuring a rotating cube of coloured ‘2’ symbols. Long-running programmes such as Play School, NewsroomHorizon, The Money Programme and Late Night Line-Up quickly moved to colour production but there were still a few new programmes produced in monochrome mostly due to a continuing shortage of colour production equipment; Television Centre was not comprehensively colour-equipped until the autumn of 1970 though most schools programmes and The Open University were still being produced in black-and-white for a while longer for reasons of cost and perceived lack of demand. By contrast, ITV schools programming moved over to colour production quicker because they saw it as a higher priority despite colour televisions still being a rarity in schools for several years after commencement of colour broadcasting.

BBC2 Colour WeatherBy December 1967 colour was available in London, the Midlands, the North and South of England. Other early colour programmes included The World About Us (which basically used stock colour documentary footage – the first programme featured volcanoes), Almost Human (about domesticated animals) and International Cabaret. The BBC-produced 1968 Eurovision Song Contest was shown live in black-and-white on BBC1 and in colour in West Germany but repeated the next day in colour on BBC2.

Murphy AdvertisementThere were many more manufacturers of television receivers in the 1960s than there are today; Sobell, MacMichael, GEC, Ekco, HMV, ITT, and Ferguson were just a few of the more notable ones, though later on more obscure models were imported to meet increasing demand. Early colour television sets used valves and were very bulky, expensive, unreliable, some had poor colour quality, and some sets were prone to overheating. After a succession of house fires people were advised to stay in the same room as their television for one hour after it was switched off.

HMV ColourmasterThe HMV Colourmaster was a colour television featuring a genuine world-first: an all-transistor chassis with no valves apart from the cathode ray tube which technically speaking is a valve in itself; a design practice that was soon to be universally adopted. Despite a lack of valves, the Colourmaster was still a very bulky television due to the complexity of the transistor circuitry and the sheer bulk of the colour display tube. Available in 19″ and 25″ sizes, the price of the 25″ Colourmaster was an eye-watering £362.18s (pre-decimal) in 1968, so it’s no wonder that colour televisions were usually rented as opposed to purchased outright. (By comparison you could buy a very decent black and white television for a quarter of the price.)

TWW Colour OneBy 1968 many ITV franchises realised that they too had to prepare themselves for a future colour service. The first to do so was TWW, followed closely by ABC: ironically both were to lose their franchise the same year (though ABC joined up with Rediffusion to form Thames). TWW’s first (and hence ITV’s first) colour camera production (pictured) was Colour One – it was directed by Mike Towers (later Managing Director of HTV) and was done purely for internal demonstration purposes. No recording exists because there was nothing available to record it with.

TWW Exhibition TentTWW also took out their colour cameras (EMI type 204 Vidicon using mirror optical splitting and a turret of wide angle adaptors, originally made for medical applications) for publicity demonstrations – pictured is the TWW tent at a Welsh Eisteddfod. The colour equipment used was a work of ingenuity – only a single RGB monitor was available and the only colour encoder available was a NTSC encoder, so it had to be modified to provide a PAL output which was no easy task.

BBC1 Colour Clock An ATV Colour Production

On 16 May 1969 the Postmaster General finally gave BBC1 and ITV permission to start their UHF colour services, and by 1 January 1970 colour television could be received in areas served by these main transmitters: Crystal Palace (London), Winter Hill (South Lancashire/Manchester), Sutton Coldfield (Midlands), Emley Moor (South Yorkshire), Black Hill (Central Scotland), Rowridge (Central Southern England), and Dover (East Kent/Sussex).

BBC1 Colour GlobeDuring the early 1970s much of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland were still totally without colour television, and despite a mini-budget in July 1971 boosting sales, by 1972 only 17% of households had colour television receivers though the Olympic Games in that year did help to stimulate interest. However tales of overheating and unreliability still put off many potential purchasers and the cost was still prohibitive for some, though TV rental provided an affordable alternative to outright purchase.

Granada Colour ProductionBy 1976 colour television sets were smaller, far more reliable and they no longer caught fire due to their ‘solid-state’ design, meaning that no valves are used apart from the picture tube. Portable colour televisions became available, though most of these were still tied to the mains supply due to their high power consumption; the exceptions usually had 10 inch or smaller screens. Picture quality became vastly improved, and the falling price of sets meant that the number of colour televisions had rapidly increased to over 7.5 million by 1976. The Home Entertainment Show 1976 in London showcased recent innovations such as teletext, and colour transmissions finally reached the Channel Islands in the same year (it took a long time due to the technical difficulties in providing a UHF link to England).

Pye TeletextBy the end of the 1970s manufacturers were looking to add more features to their televisions, and the advent of reasonably priced silicon chip circuitry meant that special features such as teletext could be added (a free information service whereby information is transmitted as ‘pages’) as well as sometimes other short-lived features such as ‘viewdata’ (a primitive internet-style service using crude block graphics as well as text) and bat-and-ball style video games. Teletext was the only special feature that became popular because it was cheap to add and free to use, together with remote control operation and electronic tuning. Early wireless remote controls mainly used ultrasound waves which were inaudible to humans but could make dogs bark.

Grundig Circuit ModuleThe 1980s and 1990s saw further developments in television design and technology. As early as the mid 1970s the German set maker Grundig had introduced a system using easily changeable internal modules with diagnostic lights so the set could even tell the engineer which part needed replacing. This idea never caught on but the basic concept of making the set simpler and cheaper to make remained. In 1983 Ferguson introduced the TX100 chassis, with some impressive claims (23% fewer adjustments, 5% fewer components, etc.), and new technologies continued to add features and reduce costs. NICAM stereo sound was introduced at the end of the 1980s, and television has continued to evolve since then with digital widescreen broadcasting commencing in 1998, high definition (HD) broadcasts beginning in the UK in 2006, and ultra high definition (UHD, or 4K) broadcasting is now a reality; experiments using this technology having taken place from 2012 onwards. Even higher resolutions are currently being considered though another brief flirtation with 3D television seems to have ended, at least for the time being.

As of January 2013 there were still 13,202 active black and white TV licences in use, even after the final completion of the digital TV switchover in 2012 (the last UK region to shut down its analogue transmissions being Northern Ireland).

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