BBC Collections - Technology

Objects from the BBC Collection

The National Media Museum in Bradford holds the bulk of a large collection of technological items developed by the BBC over the years. Pioneering cameras, ground breaking microphones, and eccentric machinery that recorded some of the earliest broadcast sounds are featured here.

BBC Microphone

The AXBT was the 4th generation design of the original Marconi Type A microphone (X, B and T representing improvements) widely used by the BBC from the early 1930s onwards. The ribbon microphone was particularly good in studio situations and the double-sided design which accepted sound from front and back but not from the side was particularly suited to voice.

It also gave the microphone its characteristic shape, which has entered popular culture as a symbolic image of broadcasting, as well as being the icon for audio in nearly all computer software.

A square BBC microphone with a heavy stand.
BBC Marconi Type A microphone

The King's Radio

In 1935 the McMichael company presented King George V with their newly designed portable radio set. Designed much like a picnic set and finished in lavish crocodile skin, the lid opened up which then turned into the loudspeaker. 

This unique set was acquired as part of a group of radios from a private collector. The radio was shown to HM The Queen during her visit to Broadcasting House in April 2006.

A suitcase-styled radio in brown wood.
The King's Radio (1935)

Bakelite Bush TV

The Bakelite Bush 22, launched in 1952, is regarded by designers and the media as the icon of post-war television sets. Many families watched the Coronation on a Bakelite Bush 22. It was also one of the first sets the public could tune themselves without professional help.

A brown cuboid television set with a two dials on the front.
Bakelite Bush 22 television (circa 1952)

Blattnerphone

The BBC had no viable means of recording sound until 1930. Among the first recording machines was the Blattnerphone, designed by early British film maker Louis Blattner. The device used 6mm steel tape to record a very basic audio signal - good enough for voice but not for music.

Spools were large and heavy, editing was done by soldering the tape, and the high speed at which the machine ran (5 ft per second) meant it was hazardous for the operator - a break in the tape could result in razor-edged steel flying around the studio.

A huge recording contraption with two large circular spools, with the recording head in the centre.
Blattnerphone recording machine (1930)

Monoscope camera test card

In the days before 24-hour TV, channels would often shut down for several hours a day. But this caused a problem for TV shops and engineers, who needed a signal to test their equipment. Originally, this was literally a camera pointing at an image on a card, but the static image could burn itself into the camera.

The invention of the monoscope camera allowed the test-card image to be built into a camera and broadcast without any problems. The image is test card C, but the most famous is test card F - the little girl and the clown playing noughts and crosses - and a version of that was still being used in 2007 by Sky's HD service.

A glass tube with a funnel-like end with black and white test card within.
Monoscope camera test card showing Test Card C, introduced in 1948.

Big Ben microphone

When the BBC first started in 1922, the hourly chimes were actually played by the announcer on a set of chime bells in the studio. But Big Ben was broadcast to usher in 1924, and later, a microphone was installed inside the clock tower and connected directly to Broadcasting House.

This moving coil microphone is one of a number that were used over the years and its low sensitivity allowed it to be installed right by the bell. Engineers experimented with microphones placed further away, but they picked up the sound of the clock mechanism and even London traffic.

A bell-like microphone sitting on top of its box.
Big Ben microphone, year unknown.

Meat-safe microphone

This microphone was the first put to general use by the BBC's provincial studios in the early 1920s. The name "Meat-safe" refers to the metal cage that protects the mic and its similarity to a domestic meat store. The mic itself stands almost 5ft tall and required a row of car batteries to power it, plus an amplifier that took up a whole room. Portable it certainly wasn't!

A substantial box on a large stand.
Meat-safe microphone (1920s)

Lip Microphone

For sports commentaries and anywhere there was a noisy background, it was necessary to speak very closely into the microphone and even then the listener could often hear much more of the background noise than was really wanted. In 1937 the BBC designed this microphone to overcome this problem.

A metal guard ring at the front of the microphone gives a precise speaking distance of 2 1/2 inches when pressed against the top lip. For this reason these microphones became known as "lip microphones", sounds coming from further away than this distance tend to cancel each other out. The design was improved in 1951 and has since been refined further.

A microphone with a mouth surround in its original wooden box.
Lip Microphone

Edward VIII microphone

Two matching microphones and a complementary cue-lamp were provided by the BBC for the outgoing King's broadcast to the nation from Windsor Castle on 10 December 1936. Sir John Reith introduced the broadcast after giving Edward a voice test (he asked him to read some text from the sports pages of a newspaper).

Reith's diaries reveal that during the handover, Edward bumped the table at which he was seated - accounting for an audible thump, which led some listeners to think Reith had left the room and slammed the door.

King Edward VIII sits at a desk with two box-like microphones on the surface.
The former King Edward VIII delivers his broadcast to the nation in December 1936.

Early BBC radio crystal set

The earliest and cheapest radio set for the home was the crystal set. The essential components were a fragile fine wire (the 'cat's whisker') acting as an aerial connected to a small piece of mineral crystal such as galena, which received and converted the signal to audio that can be listened to on headphones.

Sound quality was relatively poor, and the set could only really be listened to by one person. But they had the advantage of requiring no power, operating purely on the energy in the radio signal. From 1922 to 1927 the syndicate of radio manufacturers who comprised the British Broadcasting Company developed numerous sets, which were all badged with the Company's BBC logo.

A box with many dials and switches. A small plaque with BBC on is stuck on the top.
Early BBC radio crystal set from the 1920s.

World's first outside broadcast TV cable

In May 1937 the coronation of King George VI took place and the fledgling BBC television service was determined to televise as much of the event as possible. Permission could not be obtained to put television cameras into Westminster Abbey, so it was decided to televise the scene from Hyde Park Corner. However, the major problem was how to get the signals all the way from there to the TV transmitter at Alexandra Palace.

A special cable was designed, measuring about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, containing a pair of copper conductors surrounded by a copper screen with the whole lot covered in a protective lead sheath. This small sample is the only surviving example of this, making this curio the world's first television outside broadcast cable.

Encased in a glass display case, a length of sectioned copper cable in a thick surround.
The world's first outside broadcast TV cable.

Round-Sykes Microphone 1923

Within six months of the start of broadcasting by the newly formed BBC, a new and considerably improved microphone was introduced. Unlike its predecessors, it did not suffer from the high background noise (not unlike the sound of frying eggs!).

Developed by Captain Round of the Marconi Company, it consisted of a circular electromagnet about five inches (12.5 cm) in diameter and was extremely heavy. It was used for the 1924 outside broadcast of the song of a nightingale. Initially, curious noises were picked up by the Round-Sykes microphone - so sensitive was it - including the buzzing of flies and the sound of rabbits nibbling the wires.

A cylindrical barrel with various screws and bolts on the outside.
Marconi-Sykes-microphone

Further reading