1920 __ Chelmsford Station — “Melba Night” — The first advertised public broadcast programme
‣ Comment : As a result the idea of radio broadcasting dawned in the United Kingdom, and a regular wireless telephony news service was inaugurated on 23rd February 1920. Three and a half months later on 15th June 1920, the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba took part in a broadcast concert organised by the Daily Mail. This radio broadcast created a significant amount of public interest and many people listened to it. These early British radio broadcasts were not without their problems. They caused interference to what were thought to be "more serious" uses for wireless and they were sopped. However, two years later another set of broadcasts were inaugurated. The transmission site for these was at Writtle just outside Chelmsford. In line with all stations of the day a call sign was assigned to the station and for this one it was 2MT (Two Emma Tock). It took to the air using a transmitter that had been designed by H.J. Round. The success of this station lead to the establishment of another station at Marconi House in the Strand. With the call sign 2LO this station was taken over by the BBC at its formation in 1922. From this it can be seen that H.J. Round naturally played a very significant role in the foundation of broadcasting, providing much of the technical expertise and drive to ensure that it succeeded. Amidst all of this work, H.J. Round was still working on a number of other projects. One of the major jobs was the conversion of the Marconi wireless station at Caenarvon, Wales from a spark transmitter to a valve or tube transmitter. This radio transmitter used a total of 56 of Round's MT2 valves or tubes with a 10 kV supply. The station was naturally very powerful, and as a result on 19th November 1921, signals from it were heard in Australia. (Compiled from various sources) — Marconi’s company pioneered regular broadcasts of information and entertainment in Britain. It organised the first ever broadcast of live public entertainment, by the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba from the company’s Chelmsford works in 1920. Subsequently it set up broadcasting stations at Writtle in Chelmsford and at Marconi House in London in 1922. The possibilities of broadcasting entertainment and news using radio soon arose. In Britain initial transmissions were made by the Marconi Company from their Chelmsford works for experimental purposes. These broadcasts started in February 1920. Although only two daily programmes were broadcast they had an enormous impact. The famous international singer Dame Nellie Melba took part in one on 15th June 1920. (Miya Yoshida) — May 19. Marconi transmits a concert by the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba from New York City. The call letters were XWA, owned by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Two daily half-hour programs of speech and music followed for one year. On June 15, in Britain's first advertised public broadcast, she repeated the song recital from Marconi's Works in Chelmsford, England. The transmissions were allowed under a short-lived license, soon withdrawn on the grounds that they interfered with "legitimate" services. (Carlos A. Altgelt, Barry Mishkind, “EARLY HISTORY OF RADIO BROADCASTING IN ARGENTINA”) — Australian prima donna Dame Nellie Melba's broadcast from the Marconi works, Chelmscord [sic], England, on 15 June 1920, was responsible for a tremendous upsurge of interest in broadcasting. Her singing was heard as far away as Persia. Note the makeshift microphone, constructed from a standard telephone microphone and the wood from a cigar box. (National Library of Australia) — [...] The Melba broadcast had become legendary in wireless history and the Marconi archivist of the day, G.G. Hopkins, sought to establish from the engineers the "studio" used on this historic occasion. [...] For many years, Dame Nellie Melba had triumphed in the opera houses of Europe and America. She had first sung at Covent Garden as far back as 1888. She maintained her supreme position for quarter of a century, perhaps the leading prima donna in the golden age of opera. Who could have guessed that the great Melba would ever leave the bright lights of the London stage to spend even one evening journeying to an Essec factory so that she could sing standing on the hard floor of a storage shed ? [...] Melba's live audience, apart from the "official party" of ten or so from London, consisted of a crowd of local people standing in the road outside and one young lady hovering nervously at the door of the hut and peering in at the "toffs" - Winifred Sayer. There was of course the wider audience, the wireless amateurs at their equipment, concentrating on getting the best adjustments, headphones clampled on. [...] But the scattered listeners awaited Melba with an equal sense of expectation and she would not disappoint them. Amid an unlikely setting, the strangest "Melba Night" of all was about to unfold, one where there was no stage, no cast, no orchestra, no habitués, no society ladies whith flashing jewels; just scattered listeners, few of whom had ever been to an opera, but most of whom had undoubtedly heard of the legendary diva. [...] "Hello, Hello, Hello ! Dame Nellie Melba, the Prima Donna is going to sing for you, first in English, then Italian, then in French". The Marconi announcer apologised for Marconi's having no control over the "atmospherics". A chord was struck and listeners heard the first fleeting notes as Dame Nellie ran up and down the scale. This preliminary check brought a flurry of adjustments, the engineers tapping meters and adjusting capacitors for tuning. The distance between microphone, singer and the piano were all critical. [...] The engineers most closely associated with the arrangements for the telephony tests were Round, Pettengill and in particular Ditcham, who had joined the Marconi Company in 1915 (from Grindell Matthews) and had rejoined in 1919 after a spell in the navy. In 1958, Ditcham was sure of only one thing : Melba did not sing in the Transmitter Building where he was in charge. Fortunately, Round remembered the occasion rather better. "Melba sang in the little building situated near the big valve transmitter house. She sang about a yard from the microphones, nor like the photo of her holding it. I had a bit of difficulty placing her as she told me she knew all about it. She had made a number of recordings. I let her do what she wanted to. She was interviewed by a crowd of reporters after the show standing outside the door". In his letter to Hopkins, Round added a sketch plan. This showed, alongside the site boundary, the Transmitter House; a small yard separated this from the "little building" in which he indicated the positions taken by the microphone, Melba and the baby grand piano. [...] When asked by Hopkins where Melba had sung. Ditcham had admitted he was unsure as to whether Melba sang "from th dining room of those days or from the works out-building adjacent to our railway line'" (letter of July 1958 in Marconi Archives). [...] Round explained the confusion : "It was laid down that Melba had to be received in, and to sing from, a very nice studio - and our laboratories in which the gear was housed were a very long way from being a room suitable for receiving the great lady. We undertook to put down a long landline (from the Dining Room), to bring the microphone current to the transmitter. However, at the last moment this turned out be a failure as the line we had erected picked up so much of the high-frequency current from the aerial that it put the modulating wave out of action. What is now (in 1932) quite an easy problem to solve was in those days quite a difficult one, and Melba had to be content with singing in a shed near the apparatus in the laboratory. The place was made as comfortable as possible with a few mats and a piano, and the microphone was suspended" (Round Capt. H.J., "Broadcating Reminiscences", World Radio, 21 October 1932). [...] Then the great moment came, Dame Nellie's voice singing the old favourite, "Home Sweet Home" was radiated by the powerful transmitter loud and clear across Britain and the Continent and out to sea. Puccini's "Addio" from "La Boheme" then followed. It too went off without a hitch. St Leger now left the piano so that Bemberg could accompany Melba in the last item, a piece of his own composition called "Nymphs and Sylvains". This had already commenced when one of the valves on Ditcham's panel started to musbehave itself and finally broke. Ditcham stopped the machinery and all went silent except in the "studio" shed where there was nothing to suggest anything was amiss. Round rushed from the yard to the transmitter house. The repair would not take long but the concert had had an abrupt ending as far as listeners across Europe were concerned and the third song had been all but lost. Round then went through to the shed where he found Melba still singing "Nymphs and Sylvain" blissfully had gone wrong, and knowing all was now well with Ditcham, addressed her with the words : "Madame Melba, the world is calling for more". Imagining that he had been receiving messages of appreciation from all over the world through the magic of radio, she responded : "Are they ? Shall O go on singing ?" Bemberg was still at the piano and so Melba sang his "Chant Vénitien". As an encore, she then repeated "Nymphs and Sylvains". Listeners therefore missed nothing of the planned programme. Melba dinished with the first stanza of the National Anthem. Amid applause, the announcer stepped to the microphone. "Hello, Hello. We hope you have enjoyed hearing Melba sing. Godd Night !" (H.J. Round, "Broadcasting Reminiscences", World Radio, 21 October 1932). [...] Melba was not the only great singer to perform at Chelmsford in that series of tests. Five weeks later the great Danish tenor, Lauritz Melchior, came down under somewhat similar circumstances. Again for Hopkins the question of the "studio" arose. [...] Shortly after Melchior's broadcast, another great singer came to the Marconi works. This was the famous contralto Dame Clara Butt. She was accompanied by her husband - himself a renowned singer - Kennerley Rumford. [...] Finally, what of the little band of workers who volunteered to take part in the initial tests of 1920 ? They included men from the works - one played the calrinet, another the oboe; and there was a man in Round's laboratory who played a one-string fiddle. Then there were the singers who were "dragged in to help" oneof whom, Mr. E. Cooper, had a very nice tenor voice. And one must not forget Miss Winifred Sayer, a soprano, who came over from the Hoffman works to make the "concerts" more appealing to listeners. Round remembered them performing "in close proximity to the running machinery which sometimes interfered with the musical character of the concerts". [...] "MZX calling; MZX calling. This is the Marconi valve transmitter at Chelmsford, England, testing on a wavelength of 2500 metres. How are our signals coming in today ? Can you hear us clearly ? I will now recite to you my usual collection of British railway stations for test purposes. The Great Northern Railway starts at Kings Cross, London, and the North Western Railway starts from Euston; the Midland railway starts from St Pancras; the Great Western ...". The transmissions were to be twice a day at 11am and 8pm, beginning 23 February and finishing 6 March 1920. The news would once again take up 15 minutes leaving time for perhaps thee short musical items. On 20 February Capt. H.J. Round sent a memo to the Chief Engineer announcing the series of musical tests. He asked the Chief Engineer to inform all Marconi land stations, requesting them to report back if they heard the transmissions. [...] It was at this point (in January 1920) that one of the engineers assisting in the tests sarted to organise short transmissions of musical items. The engineer, Mr. G.W. Shite, was himself a brilliant pianist and was joined by Mr. A.V. Beeton, oboe, and Mr. W. Higby, clarinet, both being from the works. Some vocalists, likewise from the works, were called in to help, including Mr. Edward Cooper, who had a good tenor voice which transmitted easily. Mr. Cooper performed with a local band and knew a young soprano, Miss Winifred Sayer, who was in the same group. He suggested she be invited to take part in the Marconi concerts. Although Miss Sayer was on the clerical staff of the neightbouring factory, Hoffmanns, and so would have to be paid, this idea was approved and a programme of concerts began to be prepared. "MZX calling. This evening for a change we have a vocalist; a lady vocalist too, you'll be glad to know, so I will now ask her to start on her first song. Will you start now please ?". Nothing could have been more incongruous; standing on a stone floor strewn with packing cases and nervously holding the "telephone" to her lips she commenced her refrain : "Sometimes, between long shadows on the grass, / The little truant waves of unlight pass, / My eyes grow dim with tenderness, the while / Thinking I see thee, thinking I see thee smile. / And sometimes, in the twilight gloom apart, / The tall trees whisper, whisper heart to heart, / From my fond lips the eager answers fall, / Thinking I hear thee, thinking I hear thee call !". [...] It was an Edwardian ballad with the title "Absent". [...] "That was the song I sang - the only song I did. I didn't know what they wanted so I thought it best choose a short piece. Then Eddie Cooper sang. I said to Eddie Cooper, "What do we do now ?" Then we had a duet. There was no piano, Eddie Cooper had a tuning fork and hit it and off we went. They gave me ten shillings each night. I sang three nights. When it was all over I went home and my father said, "What did you do ?" I told him (about the microphone) and said it seemed a bit daft to sing into something like that. It only took twenty minutes. We just came away; never thought anymore about it." (taped interview by author, 14 January 1991). [...] At Burlington House, Piccadilly, a committee meeting of the Royal Society was adjounred by its Chairman in order that members might witness "a rather interesting experiment". They entered an adjoining lecture theatre where two small bits of apparatus were positioned. They then heard a programme of songs, piano and speech "radiating" from Chelmsford, some thirty miles away. They bewilderment was not alleviated when the demonstrator said musingly : "I'm afraid the sound is harsh" (Hadow, Sir Henry, "Preface to New Ventures in Broadcasting"). (John & Brian Hennessy)
‣ French comment : En 1920 Captain H.J. Round, de Marconi.Co. a mis au point des tubes plus grands. Ils ont permis de construire des émetteurs plus puissants à Chelmsford. Comme les essais de portée se limitaient à une ennuyeuse litanie de noms de gares de chemin de fer, Round et Ditcham ont mis à profit les talents musicaux d’un certain nombre d’employés de la compagnie. Les expérimentateurs ont reçu 214 rapports élogieux, envoyés de distances allant jusqu’à 2334 km. L’histoire de la radiodiffusion britannique a connu un tournant à l’occasion de la première émission radio d’une artiste célèbre, Dame Nellie Melba, qui, le 15 juin 1920, a donné un concert historique de 30 minutes en direct des installations de Chelmsford. Dans les jours qui ont suivi, une pluie de lettres enthousiastes provenant des quatre coins du monde s’est abattue sur Chelmsford. Dame Nellie a reçu mille livres de rémunération pour sa peine (payées par le quotidien anglais The Daily Mail). Les diffusions expérimentales se sont poursuives à partir de Writtle, près de Chelmsford, indicatif d’appel 2 MT « Emma Toc », avant que l’émetteur 2LO, situé au siège de Marconi sur le Strand à Londres, n’entre en service. Le 18 mai 1922, quelque 400 fabricants potentiels se sont vu proposer la création d’un consortium destiné à mettre la radiodiffusion sous le contrôle d’une compagnie unique. C’est ainsi qu’à vu le jour la British Broadcasting Compagny (qui deviendra par la suite la British Broadcasting Corporation), avec un capital initial de 100.000 £. (Le musée national suisse de l'audiovisuel, Swiss Museum of Sound and Image)
‣ Source : Yoshida, Misha, “THE INVISIBLE LANDSCAPES, A curatorial project and a comparative study on concepts of intimacy in mobile telephony”
‣ Source : Hennessy, Brian & John (2005), "The emergence of broadcasting in Britain", Southerleigh, pp. 51-65.
‣ Urls : http://www.oldradio.com/archives/international/argentin.html (last visited ) http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4548262 (last visited )
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