THE MEN BEHIND THE MASTS
Pat Hawker pays tribute to the key personalites who masterminded the creation and development of the transmission system for Independent Broadcasting - from the perspective of Autumn 1990 as the IBA is about to be dissolved and replaced with three separate bodies; The Independent Television Commission; The Radio Authority and National Transcommunications - the transmission provider:
Pat Hawker MBE, G3VA, sadly passed away on 21st February 2013 aged 90. His son and daughter, Philip and Virginia, were with him at the time. Pat was first became a licensed radio amateur in 1936 with an 'artificial aerial licence' holding callsign 2BUH, becoming a full transmitting amateur in 1938 with call sign G3VA. From his early years Pat was involved in radio; during World War Two with British military intelligence organisations MI5 and MI6, Radio Security Service (RSS), and the Dutch Bureau of Intelligence, monitoring with the Allied forces invasion in Europe, later moving on to work with the Radio Society of Great Britan (RSGB) where Pat was the Editor of the "Technical Topics" column in Radio Society of Great Britain's journal RadCom from 1958. Other achievements included becoming the editor of magazine publications Electronics Weekly and the Royal Television Society Journal, although Pat was arguably most well known for his work at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
THE BROADCASTING ACT  seems, in my view and in spite of the many useful amendments, to be a deeply flawed piece of legislation. An illustration of Gresham's Law of Politics: 'Nonsense drives out sense' That an apparently healthy, virile and eminently successful Engineering Division should have its life terminated, virtually without public debate, primarily for ideological reasons, reflects poorly on our society. To quote the late A J P Taylor: 'Change is certain; progress is not.' Clearly others may disagree with what is a purely personal point of view, coloured by regret at seeing one's former division disappear.
As an eulogy, I am tempted to refer back to a 1970s editorial that appeared in Television: 'But if television is ultimately programmes, it is also engineering. The record of ITV's technical achievements and innovation is impressive: from the original Band III network that provided good coverage from few sites to the pioneering of the unattended network of transmitters for Bands IV and V or the latest digital systems from the IBA's engineering centre in Hampshire; from the first British studio centres designed to use the videotape recorder as a production tool to the advanced computer-generated graphics of ITN or the ORACLE teletext experiments ... The controlling authority, the IBA, is accused equally often of being too harsh and too lax - suggesting that for once the degree of bureaucracy is about right ... it is not overgenerous to say that ITV forms one of the vital ingredients of what has been called "the least worst television service in the world".'
I am sure that a privatised transmission company, with television as only one of its core activities, will do its best to meet the new commercial challenges of the 1990s, whether under British or foreign control, yet the modern electronics engineer has a catchphrase: 'If solidstate equipment works, leave it alone.'
History tells us that good men make poor organisations good; poor men make good organisations poor. A good engineer, it is said, can do for £1 what any damn fool could do for £10. It has been the personalities, the sometimes difficult interaction between the Engineering Division and all the other parts of the IBA creative friction at times, reminiscent of C P Snow's Two Cultures - which has provided the backdrop to the engineering scene. If at times Brompton Road has felt the tail should not wag the dog, the engineers, it must be confessed, sometimes convinced themselves that they were the essential dog.
An articulate, sociable Welshman, P A T Bevan, joined the ITA in December 1954 as its Chief (and initially only) Engineer, He brought from the BBC a wide experience of television transmitting stations (he had overseen the building of the BBC's second station at Sutton Coldfield) along with a dislike for excessive paperwork and the disciplines of bureaucracy. Working alongside Sir Robert Fraser, whose shyness concealed a keen intellect, and Tony Pragnell, whose considerable influence on engineering policy, finances and recruitment should not be underestimated, Bevan faced the problem of getting ITV on the air.
Initially, it had been assumed that the ITA would simply ask the BBC to provide transmission facilities, or at least would share their existing masts and sites. Soon after the ITA was set up in 1954, the BBC formally offered to build and operate the transmitters. In rejecting this offer, the Authority saw clearly that who controls the engineering of a broadcasting system largely determines its shape and performance. The ITA had the foresight to ensure its transmitters would be run by ITA field engineering staff who would also be able to monitor the output from the programme companies. The ITA would be the legal 'publisher' of the programmes, provided from the private sector, so creating a unique combination of private initiative coupled with public control, giving a new form of public service broadcasting.
The familiar landmark tower at Croydon built in 1961 to replace the temporary tower used for the launch of ITV.
Mast sharing, however, seemed logical and would simplify the implementation of a new network. Negotiations continued with the BBC. Soon, serious problems were uncovered. BBC sites and masts had been chosen to suit the range of Band 1 (40MHz to 70MHz) whereas ITV, by Government edict, was to be confined to a few Band III channels, with frequencies three or four times higher than any previously used in the UK (approx 174 to 230 MHz). To achieve good coverage, it would be essential to use complex aerials, but BBC masts were deemed incapable of carrying the extra weight. Coverage from BBC masts would be severely restricted, with the ITV signals at a marked disadvantage to those of the BBC. The decision was taken for the ITA to build its own transmitting stations at sites of its own choosing, with an inter-city distribution network operated by the Post Office to switching schedules prepared by the ITA.
Building a Network
Now P A T Bevan was faced with the prospect of building an entirely new Band Ill network of transmitting stations, the first of which would need to be operational in a, matter of months. Sites would have to be found, new buildings put up, high aerial masts and towers erected, electric power supplies arranged, coverage areas confirmed and the retail trade encouraged to install Band Ill receiving aerials, converters or new sets. All this would need experienced HQ and field engineering staff, even if some of the work could be contracted out to industry.
There existed virtually only one source of suitable engineers, the BBC. By 31 March 1956, the total ITA staff of 89 included 40 for the transmitting stations, with a minority of engineers among the headquarters staff of 47. Many were from the BBC although a wider net was cast in the following years.
The first transmitting station - Croydon, Channel 9, on Beulah Hill, South London in what was virtually a hut, was based on a single laboratory prototype Marconi 10 KW transmitter with an experimental aerial on a temporary 200 ft tower (replaced by the still familiar landmark tower a couple of years later). There were no fall-back arrangements - when a fault occurred viewers lost the programme. But of the first 1,333 hours of transmission (700 for programmes, the remainder trade test transmissions), vision was lost for only 23 minutes, 13 seconds (0.029%). The entire station was rebuilt in 1969 when the UHF transmitters were installed alongside those of the BBC at Crystal Palace but with control from Croydon.
Over the next decade, the number of staff needed to man the growing number of large transmitting stations multiplied: from 40 in March 1956, to 75 in 1957, 150 in 1959 and 295 in 1966. Headquarters engineering staff increased but remained relatively small in number.
Bevan and his team have not always been given the credit they deserved for their successful implementation of the effective 405-line VHF network. They raced to stem the heavy financial losses suffered by ITV in the period before networked programmes could reach a truly national audience. Every trick of the trade was used to enable transmitters to reach as many people as possible: the first 1000 ft masts in the UK; complex directional aerial radiation patterns; the first use in the UK of two high-power transmitters delivering their outputs to a common aerial; and the first use of unattended medium power relay stations slaved to a high-power transmitter a technique destined to prove a key factor in the later UHF colour network.
But as the 1960s progressed, British television generally became immersed in new challenges that demanded political as well as technical decisions. How and when to change from 405 to 625 lines? How many hundreds of UHF transmitters would be needed to provide equivalent coverage to VHF? For how long would programmes need to be transmitted in both 405 and 625 lines? Which colour encoding system should be used - the American NTSC, the French SECAM or the German PAL?
After the damaging Pilkington Report which criticised the ITA for leaving engineering research to the BBC, engineering policy became increasingly important, the nuts and bolts of Band III transmitting taken for granted. The technical questions were in fact far more complex and difficult to resolve than may have appeared to non- engineers, affecting also industry and government regulation of broadcasting frequencies, then still in the hands of the Post Office and its political head the Postmaster General.
During the technical investigations of the rival colour systems which ran from 1962 to 1966 under the aegis of the European Broadcasting Union, ABC at Teddington (acting on behalf of the ITV companies), together with ITA transmission engineers, played an important role, using a small team of bright, well-qualified studio engineers under ABC's young Chief Engineer, Howard Steele. While the BBC were largely in favour of adopting NTSC, a system they had worked with on an experimental basis, the ABC team was more active in investigating the advantages of the later systems, SECAM and PAL. Steele worked closely with Henri Peyroles of the French company CFT but this did not prevent him from swinging over and putting his weight behind PAL when it became clear that this could win support from SECAM and NTSC supporters.
Lord Hill, currently Chairman of the ITA, was impressed with the way in which Steele, still in his mid-thirties, handled the politics of this complex technical controversy. P A T Bevan offered to relinquish the post of Chief Engineer and, in March 1966, it was announced that Steele would succeed him to build a new UHF colour network. Steele obtained agreement that the HQ engineering department of ITA should be greatly expanded to include a much increased research and development effort and that the colour quality of the new ITV colour studios should be monitored by the ITA.
The arrival of the dynamic, overtly-ambitious Howard Steele at Brompton Road, with the clear intention of running a highprofile operation and convinced that a thorough shake-up in management techniques was needed, was not immediately welcomed by those engineers who had grown used to P A T Bevan's less demanding style. Transmitter engineers, used to high-voltage equipments, tend to dismiss studio engineers as 'one-volt men'. It needed all of Steele's personal charisma - and the prospect of new senior posts - to win round his new colleagues. Among the field staff, the nickname 'Flash' (Flash Harry) lingered for several years.
The 1,080-foot concrete tower at Emley Moor in Yorkshire, built after the original steel mast collapsed in a storm in March 1969.
The Coming of Colour
The introduction of UHF and colour both presented severe technical problems, emphasised by the regional structure of ITV. There was a real danger that a constantly changing, switched network would degrade the delicate colour signals. The shorter range of UHF meant that many more transmitters would be needed than for VHF. The Government edict that the network must share sites with the BBC meant that regional boundaries of the ITV companies would change. Advertisers would have to be convinced that viewers would quickly change over to colour. Colour programmes originated in 625 lines would need to be standards-converted if they were to be radiated to viewers having only 405-line black and white sets.
In practice, engineering solutions, many of which can be attributed to Howard Steele's enthusiasm, were found - and seen to be found. He basked in . well-publicised success. The new network was based entirely on the concept of unattended transmitters controlled by novel automatic and telemetry systems from regional colour control centres located at the manned VHF stations - enabling hundreds of main and relay transmitters to be run with no increase in the field engineering staff. At HQ, on the other hand, new specialist engineers were recruited in large numbers.
From the field engineers, three were picked to be Regional Engineers, based in Birmingham, Southampton and Leeds, shortly followed by a fourth based in Glasgow. As an integral part of the UHF system, virtually identical colour control rooms were built in each of the ITV regions. From these all ITA transmitters were controlled and monitored with faults reported to mobile maintenance teams. Later the control centres were reduced to just four Regional Operations Centres (ROCs) with provision for the entire network to be controlled from Croydon, using increasingly sophisticated automated systems under computer control.
To launch the colour service, it was planned that four main UHF transmitters, serving half of the UK population, should open simultaneously on 15 November 1969, at the same time as BBC1 would similarly be launched in colour on UHF. A further four high-power transmitters were to be ready by 31 March 1970, with all companies (except Channel Television) equipped to handle and generate colour before the end of 1971.
A major setback was narrowly averted when, in March 1969, the 1,265-foot mast at Emley Moor collapsed in a storm. Howard Steele and his staff reacted quickly. A temporary replacement was located in Sweden and contracts were placed for the construction of the present concrete tower. There were also difficulties with a new type of klystron required for the high-power transmitters, entailing a trip to California for Tom Robson in order to solve the problem in time.
A less critical problem - though one that could not be overcome - arose in the case of some of the larger local relay transmitters. The company under contract to supply these was unable to meet the agreed specification, depending on the novel use of four travelling wave tubes in parallel units. A search was quickly made for alternative units based on more conventional tetrode-valve amplifiers, but the few months' delay had one unexpected outcome. To meet the demand from the retail trade to know when their local transmitters would be ready, the Engineering Information Service initiated a series of weekly Engineering Announcements on the network - the only programmes ever produced, entirely by the IBA and destined to continue until 31 July 1990.
When in 1969 it became clear that the start of colour on UHF represented a major engineering success, Howard Steele was appointed to the new post of Director of Engineering, with Tony Beresford-Cooke as his deputy and Tom Robson as Assistant Director. Engineering was in the ascendancy, crammed though it was into Brompton Road.
When Sir Robert Fraser, ITA's first Director General, retired in 1970, Steele set his cap even higher, perhaps recalling that John Reith (Lord Reith) had been a trained engineer before taking charge at the BBC. He became one of the several applicants for the vacant post, even though his idea of a good television programme was to relax. in front of a Western. He was disappointed when Brian Young, a man of outstanding intellect, was selected. The new DG saw his prime concern as being to maintain and improve the quality and public service aspects of ITV programmes rather than to devote ever more resources to engineering.
The ITA put increasing pressure on the companies to undertake more engineering research and development of their own leading, in the first place, to the appointment of an engineering co-ordinator, Norman Green, at ITCA.
Croydon Regional Operations Centre
Nevertheless, it was a fruitful period. The innovative research projects, as well as the successful UHF colour network, brought international recognition. The Authority was authorised to engineer the transmitters for the new Independent Local Radio system, consequent upon the change of name to Independent Broadcasting Authority in July 1972. Plans to establish a new engineering centre outside London went ahead. A site was found at Crawley Court near Winchester and architect John Ware commissioned to design a striking building in the extensive grounds.
The digital-video work initiated by John Baldwin while still at Brompton Road continued to bring prestige; there was a first operational digital line-standards converter in 1971; the first field-rate digital converter (DICE) in 1972; an ORACLE teletext system on air before the BBC's CEEFAX system; and a first experimental digital videotape recording system that triggered off worldwide developments in this field.
The Annan Report of March 1977, unlike the earlier Pilkington Report, went out of its way to praise the engineering work of the IBA. Steele received the backing of the educationally-minded Lady Plowden in reorganising and strengthening technical training, including the setting up of the Harman College at Seaton in Devon. In conjunction with the EBU, experiments were undertaken to ascertain the characteristics of 12GHz satellite propagation for DBS, for satellite news gathering and for international links.
With Head of Engineering Information Dr Boris Townsend, Howard Steele toured the UK presenting an elaborately staged series of the IEE Faraday Lectures, attracting large audiences. Increasingly, Tom Robson looked after the shop. Then suddenly in late 1977, Steele announced that he was to become Managing Director of Sony Broadcast, taking with him a number of the engineers. Undoubtedly he had transformed the division and won prestige for it both nationally and internationally; inflation meant that, financially, the IBA had invested wisely in building Crawley Court even if some might still argue that the physical separation of the Authority's engineering and programme divisions has led to the present situation. Howard Steele came close to being an engineering show-biz personality and Crawley Court remains a monument to his energy and determination. He died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1983.
Tom Robson, who succeeded him as Director of Engineering from January 1978, was a totally different personality. He had spent a lifetime working with highpower radio, radar and TV transmitters, most recently attempting to restrain Steele's excesses. A man of determined persistence once he had his teeth into a problem, he lacked the self-confidence needed to impose his views on those he felt were higher in the hierarchy. Not an extrovert image-maker and seldom ready to delegate responsibility to others, nevertheless he won and deserved the respect of the engineers for his realistic and painstaking understanding of his craft. He successfully oversaw the setting up of the Channel 4 transmitter network, and later initiated the reengineering of the older ITV transmitters. He gave his full support to the E & D engineers who developed the MAC satellite system and then fought doggedly, touring extensively, to gain national and international acceptance of the system. He foresaw that the rising costs of terrestrial transmitting stations would ultimately be a decisive argument in favour of DBS at a time when Brompton Road was far from enthusiastic. He initiated new management structures for the field engineering staff as it became clear that Regional Operations Centres and automation made a nonsense of the title Engineer-in-Charge at manned stations.
From the mid 1980s onwards, more and more of the early engineers reached retirement age. Tom Robson retired late in 1986 leaving IBA Engineering Division in good shape and before the demise of the IBA and its transmitter responsibilities had appeared above the horizon. He had seen the IBA Engineering Division in 1983 share with the BBC a Queen's Award for Technology for the development of teletext. Both he and P A T Bevan had been awarded the CBE - an honour that had escaped Howard Steele. The three decades had each been in the charge of three very different characters.
Dr John Forrest has had only four years to pick up the reins and prepare for the metamorphosis of the Engineering Division into a privatised undertaking in which broadcast transmission will be only one of its core activities, augmented by radio communications, consultancy, contract R & D. There may or may not be a fifth terrestrial UHF channel to engineer; less demand for station construction engineers, for broadcast monitoring staff; no guarantee that a privatised company will not pass to foreign control. IBA Engineering has come to the end of an era 'the like of which will not be seen again'.
Pat Hawker, now a freelance journalist, worked for the IBA Engineering Division from 1968 to 1987.
Changing views: from as demonstrated by the IBA on an ETV (enhanced television) video in 1988.
Of course, there was a fifth UHF analogue television network engineered for Channel Five Television in 1997 and the privatised transmission company did, as Pat Hawker predicted, fall into foreign control.
A VERY PUBLIC SERVICE
Inform, educate and entertain are key words in the many discussions that take place on the meaning of public service broadcasting, accompanied by such ideas as good balance, a high standard of content and quality and a wide range programme subject matter. Taste and decency do not lag far behind. All
subjective concepts, all difficult to define. no wonder the arguments continue endlessly! In all these discussions, however, we do not hear much about the means of transmission.
Yet since the start of ITV, the Broadcasting Acts have always specified "a service of high quality (both as to the transmission and to the matter of the transmitted)," Not only did this refer to a high technical quality of transmitted signals but also implied a high reliablity of service.
Although the IBA was left to determine the meaning of high transmission quality it can, unlike programme content, be technically defined, thereby simplifying the task, This set the scene for what became very much an engineering public service and determined the approach adopted for building two vast transmitter networks.
Such high standards were, after all, what the public deserved. To receive television services over the years they have invested over £6 billion in television receiving equipment - very many times more than the combined technical investment.of.both the BBC and the IBA. Technology improvements in recent years have enhanced the performance of receivers. It was therefore appropriate for the IBA to anticipate suce improvemens as transmitters were built and thus set
standard of quality that would match such changes.
Although the IBA Engineering Division's Quality Control Section kept its finger on the pulse in order to ensure a universal standard of quality throughout the network this could not solely depend upon the work of one section. The system quality was an attitude of mind for every individual within Engineering Division, Whatever their job.
The worldwide lead set by the IBA in unmanned transmitter stations made it a highly economic operation. Providing reliable equipment with good quality performance was essential but this had to be backed by an operation and maintenance service that could rapidly resolve any difficulties encountered. Many were the occasions when engineers worked through the night, without complaint, to correct a problem. Few are without tales to tell of long trudges in thick now to isolated hilltops to keep a transmitter in service and of lonely nights in remote transmitter stations trapped by appalling weather. It was with a great sense of pride that IBA engineers went about their work knowing that without their efforts the public would be disadvantaged.
Naturally there were critics of the system who said that it could have been built and operated for a lower cost. Undoubtedly but to what effect? A significantly worse service, I suggest, giving a standard below the requirements of the Act. Some were prepared to have a lower level of reliability providing there were never any breakdowns!
Many failed to understand the obvious fact that it costs more to deliver a high-quality transmission as enjoined by the Act, and usually required by franchise holders, than to operate to a lower standard solely aimed at the lowest possible cost.
For 35 years the skill and dedication of the IBA's engineers produced a transmission service for the public with a technical quality and reliability second none. Whatever the future holds for the Engineering Division as it adapts to its identity, all staff of these exciting, and eventful years will remember proudly the important part they played when the IBA, in engineering terms, successfully provided a Very Public Service.
Tom Robson was Director of Engineering at the IBA from 1978 to 1986.
IBA Engineering Announcements
The extraordinary radio life of Pat Hawker, MBE G3VA, is described in a book by Steve White, G3ZVW -
A Bit of Controversy, Pat Hawker - A Radio Life : http://www.rsgbshop.org/acatalog/GB2RS.html
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