The earliest days of practical television are fascinating, yet poorly understood (and as a consequence, poorly represented and explained by the media). This was a time when the only way to get television pictures was to use cameras and displays that physically moved light. This was a time of television using 19th century inventions including spinning discs, rotating drums of mirrors, flickering neon lights. And this was a time when making those Victorian inventions work with electronic amplifiers and audio broadcast technology made John Logie Baird and the other opto-mechanical TV pioneers such as Charles Francis Jenkins in the USA, household names. Their time in the limelight was short, as development in electronics for cameras, display and radio communications gave substantially better performance and quality for television programme-making and broadcasting.

The World’s Earliest-known Recordings of Television

Even though television was by nature ephemeral until videotape recording arrived in the 1950s, the video signal from the first television systems, such as Baird’s early 30-line TV system, was low enough in frequency to be audible. Starting out as being a constraint in the early 1920s, this became deliberate (for Baird in Great Britain) by the early 1930s as it allowed him to use the existing audio broadcasting technology by radio, for television broadcasting. The unstated reason was that it would quick, cheap and easy to roll out as a service and there would be quick demand for his products. As the vision signal being audible, or more correctly, fit into the audio spectrum, it meant the vision signal for television could be recorded using existing audio recorders.

Baird tried in 1927 and 1928 to build a videodisc playback device using specially recorded discs (which he called ‘Phonovision’) similar to the 78rpm audio discs of the day. The special way in which the recording was made would mean the pictures ought to play back very simply and be completely stable. That was the theory. After experimenting for some time, Baird publicly abandoned it as the results were too poor. A few of the Phonovision discs were donated (the Television Society and the Science Museum) and others just given away to colleagues, preserving them for the future. There was no value associated with them, illustrated by one being intercepted by an EMI employee from material scheduled for disposal.

The Baird Company broadcast their own regular scheduled programmes from 1929 to 1932 on an experimental basis. The BBC picked up the baton and started the BBC Television Service on the Baird 30-line TV standard, broadcasting from 1932 until 1935, when the service was shut down to prepare for the higher definition service from Alexandra Palace. During those years of 30-line TV broadcasting, many were encouraged by articles in technical magazines to record the video signal at home. One of the surviving discs is datable from its content to April 1933 as it’s the world’s first television revue, called ‘Looking In’. Another of the discs is a video recording of Betty Bolton, who appeared many times on 30-line television and was a star of vaudeville, west-end musicals, radio and film.

Any other video recordings?

Off-screen filming of moving pictures was very difficult for Nipkow-disc displays due to the faint image. With the advent of electron-tube displays, then the picture was became barely bright enough for film. Pointing a movie camera at a TV screen was rare in Britain before the war, but there are a few instances, one being a short, low-quality sequence of off-screen footage taken at the 1937 coronation.

Tele-recording (called ‘kinescope recording’ in the USA) became the primary means of recording television until the advent of videotape recording in the 1950s. The systems worked reasonably well, using various methods of synchronising the film to the picture refresh. Such systems came into their own from 1946 onwards.

For direct video to a recording mechanism (rather than filming off-screen), General Electric produced a short direct-to-film tele-recording with picture and sound in 1930. This was a laboratory test, made at GE’s ‘House of Magic’ in Schenectady, NY.

In the USA, the magazine ‘Radio News’ for June 1927 featured an article on ‘Television on Phonograph Record’ and featured on the front cover. However, if anyone made any discs such as the ones on this website, none has surfaced.

Also in the USA, there was even a video jukebox in 1941 marketed by the RadioVision Corporation of America, based in Los Angeles. Each machine was specified to have 100 discs each lasting around a minute. There is no record of this being sold (or of any of the 100 music videos being made). If the video was recorded on these audio discs, then it would have had to be low-definition, like one of the early 48-line US formats. There is no further information – just a tantalising news item and a picture of what looks like a mock-up of a jukebox maybe to elicit customer interest.

Probably the most intriguing newspaper article was the story of a recording supposedly made in New York in early 1928 of Baird’s transatlantic television tests. However even though some effort in the 1960s and then in the 1980s was expended to find that recording, it couldn’t be traced beyond the original article.

The Phonovision discs are the earliest-known video recordings, made just 18 months after Baird’s first demonstration: 5 separate experimental disc recordings of about 3 minutes each. Fast forward into the 30-line broadcast area and we a viewer’s personal off-air recording of the first 4 minutes of the world’s first television revue broadcast in April 1933 – ‘Looking In’. Then there is the collection of discs attributed to Marcus Games, with several recordings of singers, including two of Betty Bolton. And finally, there is the two-sided 78rpm test disc of 30-line material on a disc sold through Selfridges Ltd on the ‘Major Radiovision’ label.