Baird's 'Caravan' by the winning post
Baird's 'Caravan' by the winning post
Source: Not Known

Epsom is of course famous for the Derby. What is less well-known is that the 1931 race, held on Wednesday, June 3, was the first remote outside television broadcast in the world. The weather was perfect and the favourite, Cameronian, won.

The Derby had been filmed since 1896 and shown in cinemas after the event. This occasion was different in that it was shown live on television. The broadcast was provided by the Baird Television Company, in cooperation with the BBC, using the filming equipment of the former and the transmission facilities of the latter.

John Logie Baird
John Logie Baird
Portrait © Lucy McKie

John Logie Baird was a pioneer in the early days of television, and the BBC the world's first national broadcasting organisation.

The programme itself consisted of views of a parade of the horses before the race, followed by the scene at the winning post. A running commentary was provided. However, as the BBC had only allowed Baird a small voltage, the picture suffered from interference and there were shadowy images; nevertheless, it was considered a success.

The Set Up at Epsom

Baird's equipment was set up in a caravan positioned by the winning post. A mirror on the door reflected the scene onto a mirror drum containing thirty mirrors, each tilted at a different angle. The drum revolved and each mirror caught a spot of light. These spots were projected onto three photo-electric cells capable of changing the light to electrical impulses, which varied in intensity according to the tones of light received. These were then transmitted by 25 miles of GPO telephone line to Baird's control room at Long Acre where the sound and vision were amplified and relayed to the BBC. This set up was capable of producing 30 lines of sound and vision simultaneously, a significant and recent development at the time, but nowhere near the definition provided by the soon-to-be developed 405 (and later 625) line systems.

For Home Viewers

A Baird Televisor
A Baird Televisor - note image of JL Baird in the viewing aperture on the right
Source: Early Television Museum

Known as 'Televisors', 29 of these first receivers were sold to members of the public. The image produced was red in hue and the size of a postage stamp; this was enlarged to twice the size by a magnifying glass. At a cost of 26, only a few people could afford one - many were sold in kit form. Ultimately, 1000 were produced.

Initially, only the picture was transmitted for a few hours a week after regular radio broadcasting was completed for the day. By March of 1930, sound and pictures were transmitted together. For the 1931 Derby, the BBC transmitted just the centre of the three adjoining images from their recently installed transmitter in Brookman's Park, north London, over its normal medium wave channel. A version with sound was shown that evening at Grosvenor House.

A Baird Televisor Ad
An advert for a Televisor - Click to enlarge (opens in new window)
Note how much bigger the image is! Source: Early Television Museum


After the transmission Baird noted: "This marks the entry of television into the outdoor field, and should be the prelude to televising outdoor topical events."

Baird decided to cover the 1932 race with similar equipment, but to also display the pictures on a large screen 15 miles away at the Metropole Cinema, Victoria.

The Baird Rotary Drum System
The Baird Rotary Drum System - Click to enlarge (opens in new window)
Source: Illustrated London News

Baird's team spent three days setting up the equipment. A screen ten feet high by eight feet wide was provided. A single 30-line image magnified to this size would produce a very coarse picture, so Baird employed three adjoining 30 line images; these were amplified and reconstituted by individual light valves and back-projected onto the screen via a second mirror drum. This formed a composite picture at a ratio of seven high by three wide, and at 12.5 pictures a second - the best compromise between light sensitivity, detail and flicker that could be achieved within the limitations of the hardware. One of Baird's team, Mr Campbell, commented on the day of the race:

"I was checking the test pictures from Epsom. Faintly I saw a little black dot - it might have been anything. It got bigger and I peered closer at the screen, wondering what it was. For all I knew it might have been some defect in the equipment. Then suddenly I realised what it was! It was a policeman, walking along the racecourse. It was raining and I could even see the sheen on his cape."

There were difficulties - it was muddier this year and the Baird Caravan kept slipping. Again, the BBC only allowed Baird limited voltage but this was increased without the BBC's knowledge. The audience numbered 2000 people, who applauded at the end as the winner, April the 5th, was led in.

Metropole Cinema by C.E. Turner
Source: Illustrated London News


Despite being a pioneer, technical development was now rapid and Baird's system superseded in 1937 by a superior set up designed by Marconi/EMI.

Nick Winfield
July 2014

Silent British Pathe footage of the 1931 Derby can be found here.