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Televisions arrive
in homes, early 1950s

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One of the outcomes of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was that there was a large increase in the sales of televisions. This was because the BBC announced that the coronation was to be televised, which was something very special indeed at that time. My family was among those who bought a television for the occasion.

vintage television in polished wood cabinet

Early television, photographed in Brooklands Museum.

Perhaps it is only fair to say on a website such as this that it was only the better-off families who did so. My father was an engineer and although this certainly didn't make us wealthy, he probably brought in more income than the average man in the street.

I was a teenager at the time, and wasn't particularly interested in the coronation. I was more interested in the television and how it entertained us afterwards.

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The appearance of the television

Our television, like all televisions at that time was a bulky piece of polished wood furniture.

Yet the screen was tiny - only 9 inches, measured diagonally, i.e. just under 23 centimetres, and it was in black and white. Nevertheless we thought it wonderful, as previously we had had to go to the pictures (cinema) to see moving pictures.

Screen resolution of early televisions

A cathode ray fired 405 lines onto the inner face of the television tube 24 times a second. The Pye company offered a bigger screen (perhaps as big as fourteen inches from corner to corner) but the picture was not the least clearer. Instead, the blank spaces between the lines were wider.

Jan Clifford

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The television controls

The sensitivity of early televisions

Unlike wartime wireless sets which were sometimes found to be still working even after the ill-effects of a bomb blast, television sets were frighteningly sensitive. A slight bump could turn the picture into jumbled grey jibberish - only recovered by turning off the set, letting it cool down completely and then switching it back on and hoping it had 'sorted itself out'.

Jan Clifford

All the television controls were manual knobs that twisted to make adjustments. Apart from the obvious 'on-off' knob and the 'volume' knob, knobs that we had to use a great deal were the 'horizontal hold', the 'vertical hold', 'brightness' and 'contrast'. The hold controls were needed because the picture would all too often slowly rotate and need to be adjusted to keep it steady. There may have been a control for changing programmes, but I have no reason to remember it as there was only the one programme put out by the BBC at the time.

There was of course no remote control. So it was unusual to be able to sit through a programme without having to get up to make some sort of adjustment.

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To buy or to rent

The television worked with valves which had a habit of blowing and were expensive to replace. So although my parents bought our first television, they, like most other people, soon resorted to renting. Renting was a type of insurance because it became the rental firm's responsibility to undertake all repairs free of charge.

The renting firm was called Radio Rentals, so presumably it rented out radios too. In retrospect, its name was rather surprising since everyone referred to a radio as a wireless.

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The television programmes

How films were shown on early television

A means of showing pre-recorded films on television was a very long time into the future. So what was shown was always live. The BBC had a device which projected the film onto a white screen which was itself broadcast live through a television camera.

Jan Clifford

Because television was so new, the programmes were based on known entertainment at the time: the theatre, cinema or street and park entertainment. So it was quite normal to have an interval in a programme to give viewers the chance to go and make a cup of tea. I particularly remember goldfish swimming around the screen during these intervals.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer

I also remember puppet shows for children, rather along the lines of the old Punch and Judy shows.

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The television test card

Colour television exhibited at the 1951 Festival of Britain

I first saw a display of what was said to be colour television at the 1951 Festival of Britain. It was displayed next to a screen of identical size showing the same programme on a standard black and white screen. The colour was so pale that I had to look carefully to see any difference between the two screens.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

A test card was screened before the main transmission. It showed various shades of grey to so that the brightness and contrast controls could be suitably adjusted.

The programmes were transmitted from the Alexandra Palace and there was of course only one channel.

Page contributed by Neil Cryer

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.