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Copyright © William Kenneth Jones
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As a Matter of Interest: Wirelesses and Crystal Sets.


The visit we made to our house showed how the wireless's tuning-dial could select many stations - transmitting broadcasts from places home and overseas. We also saw how, in the 1930s, this new and entertaining addition to the household quickly became a central feature in almost every home in the land.

Of course, it wasn't always like that. Little more than a decade previously, broadcasting hardly existed; but when it did come, its magic completely astonished those who heard its first sounds - as we'll find out in a later visit.

Before these sounds "without wires" came through the air, people had long been accustomed to transmission over long distances - this being done by direct connections through wires carrying telegraph signals by way of devices invented by Cooke and Wheatstone in 1837. The method of signalling was later refined, in 1851, by Samuel Morse who contrived the familiar telegraph code bearing his name.

Then, in 1876, came voice transmission along wires using the telephone system invented by Alexander Graham Bell and later improved by Thomas Edison. But sound coming mysteriously from "out of the air" was another matter. In order to appreciate the feelings of that time it seems appropriate to offer, at this stage, a brief "hearing" (if you haven't heard it before) about how these sounds came "out of the blue", so to speak.

The first broadcast in this country happened in 1921, when the Marconi Company obtained permission from the Post Office to send signals from a small hut at Writtle (near Chelmsford). At first, these consisted of calibrated signals for wireless enthusiasts who possessed the equipment able to receive such transmissions. So, at that stage, it was little more than an experimental endeavour, mainly to test the possibility of signals being sent and then received over wider areas.

From these developments, the Marconi Company finally persuaded the regulating and controlling Post Office to allow them to extend the scope of transmissions. This they then did from the same hut and for a half-hour period each week. During this time, they played records, sang songs, gave news and chatted to an unseen and uncharted audience, done mainly by a person named Mr Peter Eckersley. It could therefore be claimed that Peter Eckersley became the first "disc jockey" in this country; and, from all accounts, he did the job very well.

By the summer of 1922, the broadcasts from the hut at Writtle had been supplemented by a station using code-name 2LO. This gradually expanded its range to become the best know broadcaster of that time. Two other stations soon appeared under the auspices of an Anglo-American consortium - one of which became known as the Manchester Metrovic Station, transmitting under code-name 2ZY.

The air "began to hum", so to speak, and other interested consortium - now beginning to see the lucrative and expanding possibilities of broadcasting - put in numerous complaints to the Post Office. These consisted of "worrying" about the main outputs being entirely in the hands of foreign interests and that British Companies with similar capabilities weren't getting a "fair share of the air".

The disgruntled complainers maintained they, also, were capable of broadcasting a public service in the form of weather reports, news and music, but were denied permission to do so. However, the Post Office - having complete control over those who could and could not broadcast - needed, in its controlling position, to be constantly mindful about "overcrowding the airwaves", since wireless had, by then, become extensively used for shipping and aircraft signals.

As an interesting flash-back: Queen Victoria had a special experimental receiving-set installed by Marconi at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, in 1897. This she did in order to pick up bulletins transmitted in code-signals about the progress of her injured son (The Prince of Wales - later Edward VII) whilst he convalesced aboard the Royal Yacht, fitted with transmitting equipped and moored at Cowes a few miles away. So the old Queen at the age of seventy-seven was - to use modern parlance - "with it" and eager to make use of "all the latest".

Four years later, in 1901, the first message crossed the Atlantic from Poldhu, in Cornwall, to reach a receiver in Newfoundland. The receiving station had a long aerial attached to a kite and a faint letter "S" in the form of Morse Code was caught by the aerial to enter the waiting ears of Marconi and his assistant. This generated a great debate because it wasn't thought possible for signals to travel that "immense" distance. Many sceptics therefore claimed that Marconi and his assistant had only imagined they heard the letter's coding.

But further and unarguable sensations to confound the doubters were on their way: this time, a rescue at sea. On a very foggy night in the January of 1908, a collision occurred between the steamship Florida and one called the Republic - both sailing off the East Coast of America. A receiving station in the Massachusetts area picked up a distress signal - again sent by Morse Code - transmitted in the form of the then agreed distress call of "CQD". (What was thought to be the crisper signal of "SOS" became popular some time later.)

An Englishman by the name of John R. Binns happened to be the person making that transmission, and a receiving operator along the nearby coast notified several other ships in the area by way of Morse Code, allowing for a successful rescue. This became a sensational "first" and therefore one of the wonders of what was claimed to be the modern age. However, another sensation followed - again at sea. This came on the 14th of April 1912 in the form of the wireless-transmitted distress signal sent from the Titanic when, on its first voyage, it struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. Unfortunately, its distress message had a slower response because the sinking occurred on the wider ocean.

Every newspaper editor knows it's in the nature of people to be constantly interested in dangers and disasters, so these two shipping incidents had a wide, but appalled, and yet excited, readership. Again every newspaper editor knows that it is also in the nature of people to be constantly interested in evil doings. So, adding to the sensation of the mentioned two disasters, a dramatic event of that "attraction" occurred in between. It came in the form of Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen (an American living in England) who murdered his wife and then boarded a liner - the SS Montrose - hoping to escape justice by making a hurried trip back to America along with his mistress, Ethel le Neve.

By that time (1910, and two years before the sinking of the Titanic) Marconi had arranged to install transmitting and receiving equipment in many ships - the Montrose being one. It seems Crippen was wanted for questioning and his description appeared in newspapers at that time. It also seems the ship's captain, Mr Kendall - believing he recognised Crippen as the involved man - sent a signal back to London to that effect. This resulted in information being transmitted to the port authorities just before the ship reached Quebec on the 31st of July 1910. Imagine the sensation, dramatically expressed in a Sunday Special Edition of the newspaper named 'The Weekly Dispatch' whose "arresting" headlines read:


It went on to tell how the details of Crippen's "daily doings" were transmitted to the police authorities and how he'd booked his passage under the name of Robinson, but on occasions failed to answer to that name - thus adding to the captain's suspicions. Also, the newspaper related the dramatic story of the police waiting to arrest the completely taken-by-surprise Crippen at the port of disembarkation, on the basis of the signals sent.

All these sensational events and their expanding possibilities were the reason for the Post Office's felt need to "control the airwaves" - keeping them free for important signals.

But let's get back to the arrival on the air of entertaining broadcasts. The Government's attitude was one of avoiding the direct involvement of providing a service through public subscription, but was, nevertheless, willing to allow various companies to broadcast on the basis of "self earned revenue". It seems negotiations based on this principle went on for several months, but within confusions being caused by the Post Office constantly changing its controlling Postmaster General.

Finally, six companies were left in the race; but these were unable to decide amongst themselves who should construct the transmitting station. This they resolved by forming a consortium under the name of the British Broadcasting Company Limited, whose main aim was to bring together the top British radio manufactures and thereby encourage the purchase of wireless sets (made by them) by sending out "entertaining and useful broadcasts". On this basis, emerged a public service - but one which, at the same time, received financial returns by the mentioned purchasing incentives. Thereby, on the 14th of November 1922, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation - as it later became known) started its first broadcast.

As a turn of chance, this happened to be the day of the General Election which ended the Coalition Government of David Lloyd George, in whose administration Winston Churchill served during the time we met him when we visited Charter Street. The BBC had the capacity to readily broadcast the election results and, at the same time, a news bulletin stating the Postmaster General (Mr Kellaway, who gave permission for the licensing of the BBC) had lost his seat in Parliament. On being "freed" from his parliamentary position, he appeared to be the ideal candidate for the role of the BBC's General Manager. However, he declined this job and joined the Marconi Company instead.

I do not know whether or not Mr Kellaway declined the position in a fit of pique because the BBC had announced his electoral defeat to the world? But whatever the reason, the job became filled by a person known as John Reith (then a thirty-four year old ex-engineer without particular fame or title) who eventually became well known as Lord Reith. He progressively shaped the BBC into his own image and saw it through to the time it became - fully - a Public Corporation, in 1927.

The emerging BBC also justified itself in preparing the way for that public role during the General Strike of 1926 when all the newspapers were unable to publish. John Reith, himself, announced the beginning of the strike over the "air" and also happened to be on duty to inform the country of its ending nine days later. During the strike - and against all government pressures - the BBC gave out what appeared to be impartial news bulletins every hour. This "unbiased service" no doubt accelerated its move towards its final and dominating position in broadcasting, along with a reputation for impartiality.

So we're now in the 1920s when the wireless had reached a position of almost indispensability for homes able to afford one. However and as mentioned previously: at that time, the average household of the economic status we saw in Heelis Street found a wireless set not easily affordable, since, in its early developments, it could cost nearly four or five times that of a weekly wage. This remained so until the advent of the reasonably low cost "People's Set" made by Philco (an example of which we saw in our house) and similar sets produced in the early 1930s. Before that, those able to do so constructed what became generally known as a "cat's-whisker-and-crystal-set" - or, as it came to be less wordily known: a "crystal set".

As previously promised: we'll be present at a first hearing of those magical sounds through the air, by way of such a device, in one of our later visits; but, for now - and in case you might be interested - here's a brief description of how a crystal set is constructed.

During the course of radio experiments, certain crystals were found to be sensitive to radio waves. The most easily obtainable of these were known as Ganela Crystals found in the slagheaps of lead mines. So the basis of the mentioned set was a crystal picking up the signal energy received by a long length of insulated wire acting as an aerial - the received signal being converted into sounds made intelligible to the listener by way of a set of earphones.

An essential component in all of this consisted of a special piece of wire made of gold or silver and drawn out to be almost as fine as a "cat's whisker". This needed to be positioned to touch the most sensitive part of the polished crystal. Also, the set required a "tuning coil" made of bare copper wire on which a movable wire connected to the free end of the cat's whisker could be carefully slid along the coil's length - this in order to find the right "tuning in" position to receive the transmitted signals.

Finally, what the wireless-trade then called a "variable condenser" had to be inserted between the crystal and the mentioned earphones to stabilise the current. All these components were fitted to a suitable - usually plywood - base in their appropriate connecting positions.

So, what we have in order to receive the transmitted signals is the erection of an aerial, about 75 feet long. This would've emerged from our scullery window and taken up the rear wall of our house to be fixed to its guttering. From there, it would stretch above and across the backyard for its end to be attached to a tall pole erected near the backyard door. The scullery end of this thin, flexible and insulated aerial-wire would then be made bare for connecting to the terminal of the previously mentioned tuning coil mounted on its plywood base.

The "energy" of the radio waves received by the aerial went through this coil and into the crystal by way of the connecting cat's whisker and then into the earphones fixed to the other side of the crystal by way of the variable condenser. The total assembly completed the "radio circuit" by being earthed on the earphone's other side to a convenient point in the house - which, in our house, would have been the water pipe in the scullery. This device needed no external power source (such as a battery) because all the energy to activate the crystal is supplied from that received by the aerial.

But what is most needed is the operating skill to tune the set to pick up audible signals. This, as previously implied, requires an extremely careful positioning of one end of the cat's whisker to connect with the crystal at its most sensitive part, then to adjust its other end along the tuning coil to pick up the "wave-length" pertaining to a convenient transmission. Such a set would only be capable of picking up signals from transmitters no more than ten miles or so away - depending on the efficiency of the aerial and the user's skill. It's more than likely that the first sounds received in our house were those transmitted by Station 2ZY, located in the centre of Manchester.

So there you have it. And if you happen to be transported by a time-machine back to the early 1920's, you'll know how to make a crystal set - to hear the latest news.

But what we'll be doing in our own particular time machine (one built by various recollections) is making a return to the district wherein many backyards may've seen the erection of an aerial such as the one described. This to bring into each house the wonders of sounds transmitted from one place to another - without wires.

In other words: the sounds came "wireless".


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