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DIY radio and television: The role of enthusiasts in early broadcasting

Published: 11 March 2022

Discover how amateur radio and television enthusiasts influenced the growth of broadcasting in the UK, experimenting with new technology at home before tuning in became a mainstream pastime.

Experimental and enthusiast radios

When the BBC started broadcasting in 1922, wireless radio had already been around for a number of years. While Guglielmo Marconi experimented with different wireless communication techniques to perfect broadcasting, other enthusiasts across the world did similar experiments of their own.

These enthusiasts kept building radio sets after the BBC launched, and some of their work helped shape radio into what it would become. Sets might be designed to communicate with other amateurs (known as point-to-point communication), or to receive the BBCs early experimental broadcasts.

Radio equipment made by Alan T Lee, founding member of the Derby Wireless Club, 1922–1923

This homemade radio was built by Alan T. Lee, a founding member of the Derby Wireless Club, in 1922–23. It was used for communicating with other enthusiasts.

Mullard Raleigh PM broadcast receiver made by P.F.W. Bush, 1927

This later radio is a Mullard Raleigh PM broadcast receiver from 1927. This receiver was designed by staff at Mullard, an electronics manufacturer, and instructions for construction were published in a magazine called Radio for the Millions. The set could be used to receive BBC broadcasts—but you would have to be quite the radio fanatic to build one. P.F.W. Bush spent 14 pounds and 10 shillings buying the kit, and then 223 hours constructing the radio. His hard work paid off; the device remained in use for 25 years with just a few modifications over time.

Regulating radio

In early-20th-century Britain, the General Post Office (GPO) ruled the airwaves. They held a monopoly over the post, telegrams and telephone calls, and they saw radio communication as the next step. The Post Office was closely involved with the early BBC’s attempts to secure a right to broadcast publicly; similar conversations came up when enthusiasts were looking to use their radio sets.

The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1904 required anyone who wanted to use a wireless device for experimental purposes to apply for a license from the GPO. Applicants had to provide two character references and evidence of British nationality.

Our collection includes an example of the form someone would need to complete for the right to broadcast, as well as a card of authority which the proud wireless user would keep to prove they had fulfilled the requirements of the Wireless Telegraphy Act.

Experimental Form 1 (Licence to use wireless telegraph), 1905
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Experimental Form 1 (Licence to use wireless telegraph), 1905
Card of authority to use portable receiver, 1922
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Card of authority to use portable receiver, 1922

Radio becomes mainstream

Once someone had built their device, completed the paperwork, and found their way into the amateur radio field, there was a wide community ready to welcome them. There were special radio magazines published for enthusiasts, and some groups would share their own call books so that amateur radio operators could communicate with each other.

Radio becomes mainstream - gallery

With the establishment of the BBC, radio listening became mainstream, and it wasn’t just keen radio users who built their own sets. While commercial radio receivers were available by the time the homemade radio shown below was built, its likely its owner chose to build their own to cut costs. This generation was used to going from store to store each day to gather up the necessary ingredients for their home-cooked dinner, so its not so surprising they were happy with a homemade radio too.

Home-built portable broadcast-receiver, 1925–35
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Home-built portable broadcast-receiver, 1925–35

Experimental television

The advent of television was similar to the birth of radio, with enthusiasts playing a major role in early developments. When John Logie Baird began experiments with transmitters, very few people were able to receive the signals he was sending out. The wonderful device pictured below was one of the few television receivers that existed in Britain at the time of Bairds early experiments. It was made by Robert Alfred Lampitt, who was just 18 at the time.

Homemade 30-line televisor, made by Robert (Bob) Albert Lampitt, Wolverhampton, England, 1934
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Homemade 30-line televisor, made by Robert (Bob) Albert Lampitt, Wolverhampton, England, 1934

The televisor was made on a tight budget using pieces from Lampitts family home, rather than a kit.

The disc in the centre was a key component, known as a Nipkow disc—an image-scanning device with holes punched around the edge. In transmitters, light passed through the holes in the spinning disk, hitting a light-sensitive component and creating a signal that could be transmitted. When a television like Lampitts was receiving a signal, this same signal would be converted back into light to create an image.

Television enthusiasts

Just as with radio, the existence of television enthusiasts led to the creation of television magazines. Below you can see some pages from volume 1 of Television, a monthly magazine for television enthusiasts. It was published in the UK and gave guidance on how to build your own TV set using John Logie Bairds technology. The magazine came at a time before commercial sets were available, but considered the future of mass-produced commercial sets.

Television enthusiasts - gallery

By the time the dream of commercially available TV sets became a reality, they were very expensive and much of the population would have struggled to buy their own set. For some, it was more feasible to build than buy.

Some companies sold kits to make your own television, like the example below from Premier Radio. The whole kit was sold for just over £17, and this version was made to a high standard. The screen would have been tinged green when it was new.

Television receiver built from Premier Radio kit, made by Premier Radio Company, Hackney, London, 1945–55
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Television receiver built from Premier Radio kit, made by Premier Radio Company, Hackney, London, 1945–55

Today, the long history of enthusiast groups creating and using their own technology continues, and this culture still has an impact on the shape of communications technology all over the world. Modern groups use their skills with coding to create new software and get their message out there—or tune in to what others are saying.

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