Many years ago I visited a museum housing the numerous inventions of Thomas Edison and heard with my own ears his 1878 recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on a tinfoil sheet via phonograph cylinder, having been led to believe it was the first-ever recording of the human voice. I subsequently learnt of Edison’s protection racket that forced the embryonic moving picture industry to relocate from the East Coast to the West, and was pleased to discover this apparently unpleasant individual had been beaten to sound recording by the best part of 20 years. It is now officially acknowledged that the actual inaugural recording of the human voice took place in 1860 by a Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. It’s worth putting his achievement into context by noting other events of 1860. This is the year that saw the publication of George Eliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’, Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’, and the beginning of Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ as serialised in his magazine, ‘All the Year Round’; it was the year that Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce defended Darwin’s theories in one of the most famous Oxford University debates, with none other than Lewis Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) in attendance; and the further laying of future foundations took place with the first recognised football fixture, Sheffield FC versus Hallam FC, as well as the opening of the first-ever fish & chip shops.
So, into this mid-Victorian melee we’re all familiar with arrives the means of preserving the present on tape – or paper, or cylinder, whichever you prefer. However one looks at it, this was one of the great breakthroughs of mankind in an epoch that seemed to contain an abundance of them. Like all inventions of the 19th century, it took place with simultaneous experiments that would eventually combine to produce the mass-media communications of the 20th century, with radio being the first beneficiary. The technology of wireless telegraphy can be dated as far back as the 1830s, but numerous pioneers in the field throughout the 19th century led the way to the groundbreaking visionary Gugliemro Marconi, who set up his own company in 1894 to develop the potential of wireless telegraphy centred on Hertzian radio transmission waves. Marconi worked out a way to transmit signals around a mile and-a-half, which was then believed to be as far as radio waves could be transmitted; once Marconi calculated the means of transmitting as far as two miles, he was awarded a British patent and established a radio station on the Isle of Wight in 1897 as well as opening a wireless factory in Chelmsford.
At the same time that Marconi was working in the UK, the Canadian-American inventor Reginald Fessenden was claiming he’d transmitted the human voice rather than Morse Code messages by 1900, managing a distance of a mile; Fessenden was responsible for the first recognisable radio broadcast, taking place in Massachusetts in 1906, when he read a passage from the Bible and played the violin, a broadcast that was picked up by ships at sea. The US continued to pioneer radio with the first acknowledged news broadcast from Detroit in 1920; an indication of just how rapidly radio technology was moving also came in 1920 when a New York station transmitted a series of music concerts that could be heard up to a distance of 100 miles away, a great leap forward replicated in Argentina that same year, despite the dearth of radio receivers to actually hear it. Meanwhile, back in Blighty Marconi’s experiments paid off with the establishment of a station known as 2LO in 1922, situated at Marconi House in the Strand.
As with all technological breakthroughs, the development of wireless technology in the opening decades of the 20th century is so easily taken for granted when those of us for whom it’s always been there find it impossible to imagine a time without it. Prior to the invention of recorded sound, let alone the radio, one could only listen to music if one happened to be within physical earshot of where it was being played; suddenly, it was possible to hear a past-tense recording of an orchestra or hear it as it was being played live hundreds of miles away; this had never previously been possible in the history of human civilisation, so it’s no wonder the seemingly limitless possibilities of recorded and broadcast sound caught on like wildfire in the 1920s. However, with the GPO responsible for issuing licences to broadcast in the UK, concerns over interference with military communications cautiously limited transmissions on 2LO and its sister station 2MT to an hour a day. The pastime of tuning in to wireless broadcasts had been something of a minority interest in Britain until it was decided to bring everything under one convenient umbrella organisation which was christened the British Broadcasting Company. Stations broadcasting in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Glasgow fell under the BBC banner and laid the foundations for the future BBC Regions in the process.
The formation of the BBC in 1922 – inaugurated by the debut broadcast of 2LO from Marconi House exactly 100 years ago today – helped spread radio beyond the confines of audio enthusiasts hunched over their ‘cat’s whiskers’ sets and transformed it into a mainstream phenomenon. Within a year, the BBC had relocated to new studios at Savoy Hill, had established its own listings magazine, the Radio Times (first edition published in September 1923) and had extended its reach to Aberdeen, Bournemouth and Sheffield. By the end of 1923, Big Ben’s chimes had been transmitted for the first time as a means of welcoming the New Year across the country and networked news bulletins had become regular fixtures on the airwaves; 1924 was barely out of nappies before the Shipping Forecast had made itself heard on the BBC, and the likes of the Greenwich Time Signal, ‘The Daily Service’ and ‘Choral Evensong’ were not long in following. It wasn’t until 1927 that the British Broadcasting Corporation was born, but the various elements we continue to regard as BBC mainstays were already in place before the company became a corporation.
Like many contemporary listeners and viewers, being exposed to all the self-congratulatory centenary celebrations of an institution that hasn’t resembled the institution it used to be for the best part of a decade or more makes the contrast between then and now unavoidably glaring. Being forced to look back is an exercise that merely serves to remind us of everything the BBC has lost – or has voluntarily surrendered – of late, and the BBC itself has unwittingly indulged in this exercise to its own detriment, having to fall back on its rich cultural legacy because it can hardly point to its current output in order to justify its continued existence. The impression one comes away with is that the BBC is another one of this country’s glorious museums, with its most priceless exhibits at least 30 years old; although these dusty artefacts are all worthy of preservation, to carry on pretending anything produced today will one day stand alongside those heirlooms is to fail to recognise the ongoing value of the BBC’s family silver expired sometime at the beginning of the Millennium.
Yes, it’s worth recalling the genesis of the BBC as a means of tracking the progress of mass-communications in this country, for it was indeed a significant development that shaped the nature of broadcasting for three invigorating decades – until the inevitable breaking of the monopoly with the arrival of ITV in 1955. It’s futile to try and recapture the sense of excitement there must have been in turning the dial in 1922 and coming across a string quartet playing live at a venue situated at the other end of the country; I guess you had to be there. But it should be acknowledged as an important signpost on the road to where we are now, even if where we are now is somewhere that a BBC has little relevance; and the main blame for that rests with the BBC itself.
© The Editor