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UK Government Holds Up Export of Early Amateur Radio-Related TV Archive

07/06/2015

Most encyclopedias say that the first transatlantic television transmissions took place via the Telstar I satellite in 1962, but TV images actually crossed the Atlantic in the late 1920s via an Amateur Radio transmitter, according to historical accounts. An archive of documents and other material related to that event from television pioneer John Logie Baird and his colleague Benjamin Clapp, [G]2KZ, is at risk of being exported, and the government doesn’t want to see it leave Britain. Clapp’s 2 kW transmitter was used to send the crude images to a receiving station near New York City, and the archive includes some of his Amateur Radio logbooks as well as a hand telegraph key. UK Culture Minister John Vaizey has declined to issue an export license in an effort to prevent the historic archive from leaving the UK.

According to a UK government statement, Baird, a Scottish engineer, and Clapp first transmitted the television images over telephone lines from Baird’s laboratory in London to Clapp’s house in Surrey. From there, Clapp’s transmitter, identified by his Amateur Radio call sign, was used to send the images across the Atlantic, where Clapp was among those on hand in Hartsdale, New York, to receive them.

“Man’s vision had spanned the ocean; transatlantic television was a demonstrated reality, and one more great dream of science was on the way to realization,” said a February 9, 1928, account in the New York Times that cited an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the accomplishment. The Times article listed the operator of the “vision sound” receiving station as R.M. Hart, 2CVJ. The Times put Baird’s feat on a par with Marconi’s legendary transatlantic reception of the Morse code letter “s” many years earlier.

The archive, valued at more than $50,000, consists of Clapp’s radio logbooks for the US receiving station as well as for his own [G]2KZ amateur station, plus “related paper ephemera” and a so-called “Phonovision” disc that contains an early video recording, made in the fall of 1927, depicting images of Baird’s ventriloquism dummy, “Stookie Bill.” The Phonovision disc is believed to be the oldest surviving video recording. Baird had demonstrated his electro-mechanical television system to members of the Royal Institution a year earlier.

Vaizey based his decision to bar the possible export of the items on a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. “The Columbia disc and the notes connected with this world first of a transantlantic video recording represents British ingenuity and invention at the highest level,” said RCEWA Member Christopher Rowell. “The notes contain the first ever use of the acronym ‘TV’ for television. The excitement of the achievement rests in these objects, which we hope will remain in this country as a permanent testament to Logie Baird and his team. Their departure abroad would also be a serious loss to scholarship.”

The UK government is hoping that a buyer in the UK will match the $50,000 asking price, so the archive may remain in the country.

“It belongs in Britain where it would be of huge importance for the study of the history of television, and I hope a UK buyer will come forward to save it for the nation,” Vaizey said.

 



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