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Television Timeline: the first 100 years

In 1953 there were 3 million privately owned television sets in Britain. Within the decade, there was a set in virtually every home throughout the land. Television had become the primary source of information in the home. Not only could we hear over great distances, we could also see beyond the horizon.

  • 1878 – William Crookes in England invents the Crookes tube, which produces cathode rays
  • 1884 – Paul Nipkow in Germany builds a mechanical scanning device, the Nipkow disc; a rotating disc containing a spiral pattern of holes.
  • 1897 – Karl Ferdinand Braun in Germany modifies the Crookes tube and produces the ancestor of the cathode ray tube.
  • 1906 – Boris Rosing in Russia experiments with a Nipkow disc and cathode ray tube and transmits some crude television pictures.
  • 1923 – Zworykin in America patents an electronic television system and invents the first electronic camera tube, the Iconoscope.
  • 1926 – John Logie Baird receives a licence to transmit television - call sign G2TV. Later, he demonstrates a mechanical television system, using a Nipkow disc.
  • 1928 – Baird demonstrates colour television.
  • 1929 – The BBC begin broadcasting experimental television programmes, using Baird's system.
  • 1930 – In March, the first 'living room' TV set, the Baird Televisor is presented to the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald.
  • 1931 – First Outside Broadcast. The Derby is televised from Epsom.
  • 1936 – The BBC begin regular transmissions from Alexandra Palace in November, alternating Baird's mechanical system with the Marconi /EMI electronically scanned system.
  • 1937 – In February, the BBC adopts electronic television and abandons Baird's mechanical system. New sets contain a cathode ray tube and the image is made up of 405 horizontal lines.
  • 1939 – Transmissions cease for the duration of the War and resume in June 1946.
  • 1955 – Second television channel is introduced. To receive ITV, you have to either fit a special adaptor or buy a new set.
  • 1956 – The Ampex Corporation in California produce the first videotape recorder.
  • 1962 – TV signals are transmitted across the Atlantic via the Telstar satellite.
  • 1964 – Decision taken to upgrade the system to 625 lines; the existing 405 line system is phased out over the next twenty years and the third channel (BBC2) is introduced on 625 lines
  • 1967 – Colour transmissions start in Britain
  • 1970 – The first videodisc system is announced in Britain by Decca and AEG-Telefunken in Germany.
  • 1973 – The BBC and ITV introduce Ceefax and Oracle - the world's first teletext systems.
  • 1975 – Sony introduce Betamax, the domestic video cassette tape recorder system.
  • 1979 – Matsushitu develop a pocket sized flat screen TV, using a liquid crystal display (LCD)


John Logie Baird (1888 - 1946): Man of Vision

Born in Helensburgh, the son of a clergyman, Baird studied electrical engineering in Glasgow. Ill health, which dogged his life, forced him to abandon his career. He tried his hand at various business ventures, from building a marmalade factory in Trinidad to selling "Baird's Speedy Cleanser" soap in London. "Baird's Undersock" - forerunner of the thermal sock - was a very successful enterprise, whilst his experiments with glass razor blades and pneumatic soled shoes definitely were not!

The idea of television first occurred to him in 1903, but with no means of amplifying the vital selenium cell, he abandoned this work. In 1923 he decided to try again and soon announced that he had 'invented a means of seeing by wireless'. The rest is history.

Baird's first working television receiver was made from an old tea chest, which supported the electric motor that drove the spinning disc - which had been cut out of a hat box. The spindle was a darning needle. A lamp inside a biscuit tin and lenses from bicycle headlamps completed the set. With this primitive equipment, Baird transmitted the image of a dummy's head "Stooky Bill", about three metres.

The first television set - John Logie Baird’s Televisor (1930)

The first domestic television set was mechanical and used a spinning disc (Nipkow disc) rather than a cathode ray tube. The disc was noisy and the picture, composed of 30 vertical lines, was very small and very poor. The replica, kit-built Televisor shown above, is part of the Museum collection, and was built by Harry Matthews.

Baird's Mechanical System

Baird's Televisor mechanically scanned and re-assembled pictures by means of a Nipkow Disc - a rapidly rotating disc containing a spiral pattern of holes. The number of light points transmitted formed lines; each revolution of the scanning disc produced one line. Baird's first Televisor produced 30 vertical lines but by 1934, this had been increased to 240, thus improving the picture definition. The rotating disc caused constant background noise.

Baird's Later Achievements

In addition to mechanical television, Baird pioneered fibre-optics, radar and infra-red television. He developed Phonovision - the forerunner of the video recorder, demonstrated a system of colour television and successfully transmitted television pictures from London to New York.....All this before 1930!

In 1936, he demonstrated a large screen (12ft x 9ft) colour television system. From 1940 until his death in 1946, he demonstrated and worked on six different 3D colour television systems.

EMI/Marconi Electronic System

A more sophisticated system, using an electronic camera and cathode ray tube was developed by the American company RCA. In Britain it was produced by EMI under licence from RCA. The Marconi Company produced the transmitter and aerial system. The picture consisted of 405 horizontal lines and gave a very clearly defined image.

Mechanical v. Electronic Systems

The BBC experimented with both mechanical and electronic systems from 1934. When regular transmissions commenced in November 1936, both systems were used on alternate weeks for a trial period of three months, after which Baird's system was dropped. Electronic television was found to be more flexible than its mechanical counterpart.


Television closed down completely for the entire duration of WWII, as enemy aircraft could have homed in on the signal, which was transmitted from central London. When the service resumed in 1946, it was obvious that post-war television would be very different from that of the 1930s. Pre-war, television was a rich person's plaything, restricted to the London area and with far fewer than 1,000 sets in operation.

By the late 1940s, TV manufacturers were working to create a mass market for their TV receivers ('sets'), and by 1950, there were about 300,000 registered TV sets in the United Kingdom.

The funeral of King George VI in 1952 and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, sent TV sales rocketing! Twenty million Britons watched the Coronation on three million privately owned sets. This was the first time a television audience had exceeded that of radio. Television was taking off!

The takeoff became unstoppable. In 1955, there was suddenly a second channel to watch, although initially, this was available only in the London area. Independent Television (ITV) with its adverts and populist programmes, made immediate inroads into the BBC's viewing statistics and within a year had overtaken the BBC.

By the late 1950's, costume dramas and documentaries were becoming major exports - but by this time we had succumbed to American influence: the screens were filled with TV westerns, such as 'Laramie', 'Wagon Train' and 'Range Rider', and the British versions of quiz and games shows, soap operas, police series and chat shows. Meanwhile, outside broadcast units ensured that sport became one of the most popular sources of TV entertainment. Children were not forgotten - Muffin the Mule arrived in 1946 and was the first of a long line of puppet heroes, from Andy Pandy through Fireball XL5, to Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. 'Blue Peter' first appeared in 1958 and still commands a large audience.

In 1964, it was decided to upgrade British television to a higher definition 625 line system. The 405 line system was phased out over the next twenty years. In the same year, viewer choices increased further with the creation of BBC2. However it was only available on the 625 line system. The launch of colour TV in 1967 clearly marked the end of TV's 'take off' period. From this point on, it was clearly flying!

The next phase would see the advent of home video recorders and multi-channel satellite and cable TV, leading to the 1,000 line plus, digital television that we now regard as 'normal'.

Test Card
Test Card
Experimental Outside Broadcast Camera (c. 1963)
Experimental Outside Broadcast Camera (c. 1963)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Pye Lynx Camera
Pye Lynx Camera
Video Tape Editing Console (ex-BBC)
Video Tape Editing Console (ex-BBC)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Display at Edinburgh International Science Festival (1993)
Former Television Display
Former Television Display
EMI Camera and Dolly
EMI Camera and Dolly
Live Television – from Bo’ness Library! (1994)
Live Television – from Bo’ness Library! (1994)