19 Jun


Baird Televsion. photo bairddisplay_zpsr8f8gg86.jpg
When I was eleven it was all the rage to build your own crystal set radio and I made one which persisted in playing classical music to me from earphones hanging by my bed at night. I lived only a few miles from the Third Programme transmitter (now called Radio Three) and it was (and is) dedicated to classical music, and that channel dominated the simple tuner of my crystal set. No pop music from Radio Luxembourg, then! Yes, that was the height of the technology available to me as a growing boy. But things were about to change.

“How on Earth did that do that?”

That was my response when I first saw a small hand-held electronic calculator work out a complex and one would have though time-consuming sum. I can’t remember the numbers involved nor the mathematical functions the calculator was asked to perform but I can remember how astounded I was that it didn’t apparently take even a fraction of a second to do it.

I’m pretty sure that tens of thousands were involved, and possibly division as well as multiplication. And I know the answer appeared without any discernible delay. It was amazing. I was gob-smacked.

Explain this to a young person of today and they would, probably quite rightly, think I’m three sheets to the wind (an old nautical term involving sails and ropes and implying a drunken inability to think straight). But those young ‘uns have grown up with pocket calculators as standard. When I was a lad the standard was a pencil and, for advanced calculations, a slide rule, but these days it’s just got to be the pocket calculator.

And, by the way, that early model that astounded me had five functions: add, subtract, multiply, divide and is equal to. It didn’t even do percentages! These days a common-or-garden pound-shop calculator has goodness knows how many scientific functions. The only thing they don’t seem able to do is the washing up!

All this is my way of illustrating the changes that have occurred in my own lifetime. They’ve been huge, immense, mind-warpingly gigantic.

Look at it like this.

It took thousands of years for early inventors of the Industrial Revolution in the UK to improve on the ancient Greek steam engine which was entertaining but fundamentally useless. All it consisted on was a jet of steam playing on a sort of fan and making it spin. Harnessed up to machinery it would have been hard-pressed to perform any useful task. Yet thousands of years were to elapse before Newcomen invented a useful steam-engine in the eighteenth century. Such progress would never have happened in one man’s lifetime! Progress was painfully slow, often retarded by religious bigotry and fear of the unknown.

Then came the twentieth century.

Here was I, alive and excited, witnessing the birth of something truly awe-inspiring. And shock, horror – at about the same time something else new crept into my consciousness – the digital watch with an LED display and no winder! True, they were such a novelty that you spent ages pressing the button to illuminate the time, making batteries last for mere weeks even though they were expensive to replace, but this was something so new and part, it seemed of the world of the pocket calculator with its unbelievable modernity.

You see, I was of the generation that could bask in the wonders of television. True, it was invented in the twenties and the first demonstrations of Logie Baird’s system (almost completely different from the one we have today) occurred in 1926, but it wasn’t until well after the second world war that television became sufficiently widespread for a little Peter from a council estate in Rugby to see one.

Our present queen was crowned in 1953 following the death of her father George 6th in 1952 and it was the for broadcast of that ceremony that people went out in their tens of thousands to buy or rent television sets. Another bit of social history lurks in this sentence. These days we own our television sets (and just about all of us have at least one) but in the early days many people rented them. Shops with names like (and including) Radio Rentals offer a clue!

Technology raced on and black and white television gave way to colour. Tubes gave way to flat screens. It seems that a quantum leap was performed by inventors just about every day! Even I, who watched the whole parade of discovery, ranging from my uncles snowy small-screen monochrome television set in the late 1940s and early 50s (we went every Boxing Day when films were shown on the one and only channel) to the HD set we have today (and that’s eight years old!)

A single television channel! How impossible! Not BBC 1 but the BBC! Auntie, as it was affectionately called, because it had about it the ambiance of an elderly maiden aunt wanting to keep the nation on the straight and narrow by being ultra-careful what it broadcast and ensuring proper elocution and the absolutely correct enunciation of the English language.

Things have moved on in every direction. Goodness knows how many channels, not many of any real value, and regional accents abound where once they were quashed. And the BBC iplayer, of which more, possibly, some other time.

We live in the computer age, and I reckon that deserves a post of its own, which I may write one of these days. Until then share with me, I beg you, the gratitude I feel to have been one of the first generation to witness throughout their lives the soaring wonders of human invention. And don’t get me on to the Wright Brothers and Space exploration! Well, not yet anyway!

© Peter Rogerson 19.06.15


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