The first true broadcast television service started 80 years ago, on 2 November, 1936. Its home, famously, was Alexandra Palace, a vast and really rather run-down building on top of Muswell Hill in north London. Originally opened in 1873, and re-opened in 1875 after a catastrophic fire, it was built primarily as an entertainment venue. Indeed, it was built as "a palace of the people", a usage of that expression a century or more before most of us associate it.
Ally Pally was chosen to be television's first home for two reasons. The public one was that, being on top of a hill already, it would be relatively cheap to add a mast to support the Marconi transmitter antenna. The real reason was that the BBC did not want to have anything to do with television, and if it was going to be lumbered with this foolish new idea it wanted it to be a long and difficult journey from Broadcasting House.
The banishment had one lasting impact on the language of television. The original Alexandra Palace had a large ballroom which was used for the studio floor in the experimental service. The ballroom had a minstrels' gallery for the musicians, and the BBC decided this would be a good place to put the control equipment. Which is why, at least in the UK, a television control room is known as a gallery.
The momentum behind the television service had been largely generated by the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, who was a genius at generating publicity even if his technology was not actually very good. By the mid-1930s, EMI had also developed a television system, including electronic cameras, and the decree which came down from the Postmaster-General was that the experimental service had to alternate, one week at a time, between EMI's 405 line, all electronic system and the Baird system.
There was a toss of a coin to determine who went first, and so it was the Baird system that had the honour of being first on air. But, and it pains me to say this, Baird had only invented half a television system. He created the cathode ray tube display, so we could see moving pictures. And he understood how to manage the electronic signals to drive the CRT, and to be broadcast over radio waves.
But he never worked out how to make a camera. That first night relied upon not one but two lash-ups. If either was to be suggested today, the health and safety people would be brandishing their clipboards before you got to the end of the sentence.
His solutions used a simple photo-electric cell to convert photons to electrons. The challenge was to make light scan the scene.
The announcer, therefore, was invited to sit in an entirely black box. In front of him was a thing called a Nipkow disc, which was a large circular piece of steel spinning at high speed, with a spiral of holes punched in it and a very bright light behind it. The light scanned the scene; the photo-diode output an analogue signal corresponding to the reflection.
If you did not have photosensitive epilepsy before, you probably did after a shift or two of this. And of course you could not read a script, because you were in total darkness apart from this blinding light rapidly flashing across your face, so you had to try to remember what you were supposed to say.