Alexandra Palace from above.
A brief introduction to Historic photography Listed places Second World War

Radiowaves to Fibre-optics: The Evolution of Wireless Technology

The first electrical communication system was introduced in England in the 1830s.

The BBC has been beaming information, news and entertainment into our homes for 100 years in 2022.

Have you spared a thought for how it gets from them to you, and how wireless technology all began?

The Smith family gathered around the television in the front room of 208 Lichfield Street
The Smith family gathered around the television in the front room of 208 Lichfield Street. © Historic England Archive DES01/04/0065.

The birth of the radio

The first electrical communication system was introduced in England in the 1830s. The electric telegraph used cables to send messages on a network that, by the 1860s, extended under the Atlantic Ocean to America. But could communication take place through the air: without the cables or wires… and be ‘wire-less’?

Heinrich Hertz made a breakthrough in the 1880s when he proved that electromagnetic reaction could be produced in radio waves. He inspired Guglielmo Marconi to develop the principle and in 1895 Marconi transmitted an audio signal over a distance of 2 miles: ‘radio’ was born.

The sales office of 'Wireless World' in Marconi House.
The sales office of ‘Wireless World’ in Marconi House. Source: Historic England Archive BL23577.

Marconi developed, patented and sold his technique for mass use in England. The first public transmission of wireless signals took place in the General Post Office building at Newgate Street, London (now BT Centre). In 1902, Marconi’s wireless station at Poldhu, Cornwall transmitted the first transatlantic telecommunication message.

General View From Poldhu Point taken in 1901
General View From Poldhu Point taken in 1901, Radio Station, Mullion, Cornwall. Source: Historic England Archive.

Communication by radio waves was one of the most significant advances of the 20th Century. The technology was developed to provide not only sounds (audio signals), but also moving pictures (video signals) and data from computers (digital signals).

From the studio to the home

In 1922 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was formed by electrical companies under licence from the General Post Office (GPO). The BBC remit was to provide a national radio broadcasting service by establishing a network of transmitter stations. Broadcasting began from city centres, usually beamed from the rooftops of buildings. All programmes were locally produced until in 1924 when they began ‘relaying’ signals between transmitters to create a national service.

Marconi House
8 Aldwych, WC2 / Marconi House. © Mr Anthony Rau. Source: Historic England Archive.

A Regional Scheme was begun to provide better reception countrywide, by ensuring everyone was within an 80-mile radius of new transmitter stations and using much more powerful transmitters. This was an enormous undertaking but would give every listener a choice of two programmes, one national and one regional.

Brookman's Park from above.
Brookman’s Park. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection EPW028957.

The operation of the service was under the control of technicians who captured the content on microphones, and engineers who managed the broadcast of the signal from the studio to the station transmitter and, from relay stations, to the radio sets in peoples’ homes.

Once the network was created, the government closed the company and chartered the British Broadcasting Corporation on 1st January 1927 to make and transmit the programmes. Broadcasting House in Portland Place would be the new headquarters.

A view Broadcasting House on Portland Place from the south
Broadcasting House on Portland Place from the south. Source: Historic England Archive SAM01/03/0989.

BBC staff activity was carefully scrutinised by the Director General John Reith, who famously insisted that radio announcers wear evening dress, a tradition that was preserved for the first television announcers.

Under ‘Reithianism’: “All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement…. The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance.” This moral steadfastness was seen as ever more important when the nation went to war.

A national service

Radio communication played a vital role on the Home Front during the Second World War. A secret network of underground radio stations was set up at the height of the German invasion threat and the stations would have shared invading enemy movement with group command centres using antennae hidden in trees or on church towers. Fortunately, they were never needed, but civilian wireless broadcasts provided highly valued news and entertainment to homes throughout the war.

Artist’s impression of how aerials will have been attached to trees at Chirnside 1 Wireless Station
Artist’s impression of how aerials will have been attached to trees at Chirnside 1 Wireless Station, Bewley Down, Dorset. © David Hunt.

Military uses drove the development of radio transmission techniques with microwave technology creating ground-breaking systems such as radar, satellite communication and particle accelerators. It would also enable new domestic appliances such as garage door openers and microwave ovens.

A countrywide microwave radio relay system with taller communication towers that could transmit FM Radio and television signals was set up by the Post Office in the 1950s. Later, it was centred on British Telecom Tower in London (listed Grade II), which was primarily built for national and international telephone communication and was the first tall tower in Europe to be built for high frequency waves.

General view of the BT Tower from the south-east
The BT Tower from the south-east. © Historic England Archive DP180636.

For many years the tower was designated as an official secret due to its importance in the national communications network and for a secret national security role.

As part of the UK’s Cold War civil defence strategy it was linked to a network intended to keep communications open in the event of nuclear attack. A system of Regional Seats of Government was created in the 1950s with radio studios included.

A Central Government War Headquarters was built in a converted underground aircraft factory in Wiltshire, which still has a city-scale telephone exchange and a radio studio that was linked to the BBC emergency centre in Oxfordshire. The communications there were maintained and tested by BT until the 1990s.

A view showing the BBC studio in the underground bunker
The BBC studio in the underground bunker. © Historic England Archive DP148182.

The magic rectangle: the ascent of television

The war had temporarily interrupted the development of television broadcasting after the world’s first scheduled television service was transmitted from Alexandra Palace in London from 2 November 1936 using Marconi-EMI’s 405-line system.

Alexandra Palace from above.
Alexandra Palace. © Historic England Archive. Aerial Photo 24398/032.

BBC transmission for London moved south of the river in the 1950s with a new mast built on the site of the Crystal Palace that had burned down on 30 November 1936, days after the pioneering Alexandra Palace television broadcast.

The fire destroyed John Logie Baird’s studio and transmitter, which had been in the South Tower. Baird had demonstrated the first live working television system in 1926 and he went on to develop colour television.

Crystal Palace transmitter from above
Crystal Palace transmitter from above. © Historic England Archive. Aerial Photo 35098/045.

The transmission process became more complex with additional equipment to transmit video as well as audio, and more personnel were required to operate cameras, drive a vision mixing desk and direct the performers.

After the Second World War television ownership remained a luxury, but by 1953 more than 20 million people watched Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation on television, outnumbering a radio audience for the first time. The coronation of King George VI in June 1927 had been the first national radio ‘outside broadcast’ (OB).

A Gallup pollster interviewing a family in their living room with an 1950s television set in the corner of the room
A Gallup pollster interviewing a family in their living room with an 1950s television set in the corner of the room. © Historic England Archive AA100802.

OB trucks became an essential part of live sports broadcasting in the television era. In 1953, cameras were allowed inside Westminster Abbey for the first time, to capture the coronation of Elizabeth II.

By the late 1960s a full colour television service was introduced. Tape technology led to many programmes being recorded for repeat playout and, eventually, almost all content would be played off tape. Exceptions were the news and other ‘live’ events.

Interior showing Marguerite Patten presenting a cookery show in front of a BBC television camera at Alexandra Palace N22
Marguerite Patten presenting a cookery show in front of a BBC television camera at Alexandra Palace. Source: Historic England Archive CC016867.

An engineer or operator in the transmission (TX) studio would coordinate the studio gallery in and out of scheduled taped programming using a radio talkback system, and they would cut away to advertising breaks on commercial channels.

Programme ‘junctions’ could be finessed with a fade to black or a ‘wipe’ and continuity announcers would be brought in over end credit sequences to alert the viewers as to the following programme. Sometimes programme junctions would go wrong and the viewer might see something like this:

HD SMPTE Colour Bars With Tone. Enchanted media.

From 1954 the monopolistic grip of GPO and BBC for public service broadcasting provision was diluted as the Independent Television Authority licensed 14 regional franchise broadcasters to provide rival services with under the ITV network. A new Band III network with ITV transmitters was built to carry the additional 405-line channels. The public appetite for entertainment and information via the television only grew as the network expanded.

General view looking south across the Regent's Canal towards the former TV-AM television studios
Former TV-AM television studios. © Historic England Archive DP251208.

Sky and other satellite broadcasters have since built their own infrastructure that has eclipsed the ‘terrestrial’ services.

The evolution of TV: Satellite services

Satellite and cable television companies began broadcasting in Britain in the 1980s using technology developed during the Cold War: an artificial satellite orbiting at a fixed point to amplify and relay radio signals from a transmitter and receiver at different locations on the ground.

The first satellite was Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 launched in 1957 and in 2022 there are well over 2,000 communications satellites in orbit around the Earth. The birthplace of satellite communication was at Goonhilly in Cornwall. The antenna known as ‘Arthur’ was built in 1962 to receive the first live transatlantic television pictures and it formed the successful prototype for all satellite receiving antennae.

General view of Antenna 1, Arthur, looking into the satellite dish, Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, Helston. © Historic England Archive DP035734.

Receiver stations such as that at Goonhilly would relay the signals to substations and then to homes. By the 2000s, satellite dishes had become ubiquitous fixtures on houses and chimney stacks. Earlier models would stand in a back garden and could be moved to receive pictures from a specific satellite of your choice.

Certain locations would have problems receiving the signal directly, sometimes due to the topography or tree cover, and homeowners were unable take advantage of satellite services. This situation has been mostly remedied by the switchover to digital terrestrial in 2007 and the rollout of a fibre-optic broadband network.

General view of houses on the north side of Gladstone Avenue in the Noel Park conservation area, showing numbers 161 to 167, which display a number of satellite television dishes. © Historic England Archive DP075216.

Initial public bafflement over the term ‘digital’ has largely disappeared since the analogue radio and TV signals have been switched off. With new set top boxes working well, and radio and streaming services often played through Bluetooth devices, most people feel safe in the knowledge that they can enjoy their favourite programmes without any fuss. Those who now have their televisions plugged into their broadband service via a Wi-Fi router have even dispensed with their roof aerial altogether.

The switch to digital has had an enormous impact on our viewing habits. The change has meant that we are using the airwaves more effectively and can transmit many times more channels and offer services such as ‘catch up’ that may eventually lead to the end of scheduled channels altogether.

Broadcasters had begun to make the digital switch by the late 1990s. It meant that expensive and cumbersome tape stock was replaced with large computer servers to record or ‘cache’ programmes and adverts.

Multiple channels could be aired by a single automated playout system with one operator, and a standby engineer covering a number of transmission ‘suites’. This gave a considerable cost saving to the broadcaster of multi-channel satellite services and helped justify the investment in the new technology. Third party providers now specialise in digital playout with many broadcasters contracting out their services.

TV in the 21st Century and onwards

In the 21st century, communications equipment is moving underground, although we still rely on telegraph poles in many locations, particularly in rural areas.

Stock Hill Lane. Passing Rails Farm. To the right of the telegraph pole is Magog Farm. © Derek Harper via Geograph.

The transition to broadband services has accelerated with the expansion and reduction in cost of a fibre-optic network, which sends pulses of infra-red light. Fibre optics, first developed in the 1970s, has revolutionised the communications industry to overtake the old electrical transmission or ‘copper wire’ with improved services in terms of long-distance use and the amount of data they can transmit and at what speed (bandwidth).

The microwave links that were previously used to transmit television and radio between towers have been replaced with subterranean fibre optic cables. The towers often still carry radio cellular systems for mobile phone companies, and ‘cells’ can often be seen sitting next to older microwave dishes.

Older microwave technology is still used in several ways including for home wireless routers, but in a few more years we may notice that there are no dishes or aerials attached to chimneys anymore (and chimneys themselves are becoming scarcer with alternative domestic heating methods).

Rooftops and television aerials of houses in Framlingham. © Historic England Archive AA081911.

If you want to see what is replacing TV aerials, just look on the pavement and also look in your pocket or laptop case.

BT Cabinet. © Jerome Tait.

Further reading:

I am a Listing Adviser for Historic England and joined the organisation (then English Heritage) in 2009. Prior to this, I was a Transmission Controller and Vision Mixer for numerous satellite and cable television channels.

5 comments on “Radiowaves to Fibre-optics: The Evolution of Wireless Technology

  1. Where do we go next? Hungry, apparently. Just before reading this excellent article I read the Irish farmers are having to give up growing grain so that the land can be used for solar panels to power data centres in Dublin.

  2. Please may we have accuracy? And a technical history – or at least links to one?

    “A countrywide microwave radio relay system with taller communication towers that could transmit FM Radio and television signals was set up by the Post Office in the 1950s. It was centred on British Telecom Tower in London [later known as the Post Office Tower]

    Not So. The tower was topped out on 15 July 1964, officially opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 8 October 1965 and officially opened to the public on 19 May 1966. As well as the communications equipment and office space, there were viewing galleries, a souvenir shop and a rotating restaurant on the 34th floor.

    In its first year the Tower hosted just under one million visitors[12] and over 100,000 diners ate in the restaurant.

    Hardly an official secret, then. However, due to its importance to the national communications network, information about the tower was designated an official secret.

    A bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower restaurant on 31 October 1971. That act resulted in the tower being largely closed to the general public and
    public access to the building ceased in 1981.

  3. I found that really interesting. Thank you for such an informative article. 🙂

  4. Paul Needham

    Neither the north nor the south towers of Crystal Palace were destroyed in the great fire of 1936. However, some equipment was destroyed in the main building which accelerated the move to Alexander Palace that had already begun. The towers were both demolished in 1940, when it was discovered that German bombers were using them to lock on to their targets during the London blitz.

    King George VI’s coronation was in 1937.

  5. Paul Needham

    Oops, sorry, the correct year for the demolition of the North Tower was 1941.

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