Televising the Derby (1931): the world's first televised sporting event

by Iain Logie Baird, 27 April 2021

The beginning of sport on television can seem further back in time than it actually is. For example, the annual Epsom Derby, Britain's most famous horse race, has been filmed since 1896. Most of us will have seen a number of similarly ancient events on television or the internet without bothering to consider that such images were confined to the cinema for decades. All manner of sports were covered in films, newsreels and the like. It was radio's arrival in the 1920s that first brought listeners the action as it happened via the announcer's voice and the Derby was first broadcast on radio in 1927. The fact remained that the only way of seeing a sporting event, a parade, or anything else as it happened was to buy a ticket, travel there, and brave the crowds.

On 3 June 1931, this situation would end forever. For the first time a major sporting event would be seen live on national television. This would be accomplished by the Baird Television Development Company that had been broadcasting regular sound-and-vision programmes from its studio in London using B.B.C. transmitters during off-hours since March the previous year.

Baird had first demonstrated television pictures obtained in ordinary daylight in mid-1928 up on the roof of the 133 Long Acre building in London where the Company had its offices and laboratories. This apparatus was based on a large Nipkow scanning disc and also included a massive light-gathering lens. Three years later, the new experiment in daylight television was the result of investigations by engineers of the Company into the greater optical efficiency of Lazare Weiller's (1858–1928) mirror drum system.

Tests with a mirror drum in ordinary daylight were carried out at street level in front of the building on 8 May 1931. A drum scanner (the 'television camera' in modern terms) had been installed in an ordinary caravan. A large square mirror was attached to the inside of the caravan's hinged door and used to redirect the desired image toward the scanner simply by moving the door on its hinges.1 The heavy scanning motor and chassis with its drum operated in a fixed location in the middle of the caravan's interior. The drum was approximately two feet in diameter and had thirty mirrors around its circumference. As it rotated, each mirror reflected the image from the door through a lens and then onto a photo-electric cell. Due to the mirrors being progressively tilted, the image was divided into thirty strips, each strip sending out a varying current, which after amplification was sent into the building. The frame rate was the standard 12 1/2 images per second, with the drum rotating at 750 rpm.

The caravan outside 133 Long Acre circa 8 May 1931 (image courtesy Dr. Phil Ellis)

Ordinary telephone lines were used to connect the output of the amplifier in the caravan to a receiver inside the building. The receiver used was a commercial 'tin box' televisor of the standard type used by lookers-in (what viewers were called at the time) to see the daily television programmes transmitted via the B.B.C.

During the small press conference held on the day, 'passers-by were observed, and a policeman who came over to see what was happening was seen quite clearly in the small screen in the televisor, although there was no sun'.2 Baird mused 'that the fact that one was able to pick up the street scene showed that the idea of televising the Derby or cricketers at Lord’s was not so fantastic as some imagined'.3 Since his earliest experiments in Hastings, he had predicted that he would one day be able to televise the Derby. Journalist and author Sydney Moseley, who was his business manager and publicist at the time, would later write:

The Press gave considerable prominence to that boast and it brought down upon his devoted head an avalanche of sceptical and occasionally cruel comment. He was always sensitive to scoffing of this kind and justifiably resentful of it. But he rarely made direct answer to his critics, rarely licked his wounds in public, and never, which is more important, lost faith in himself and his invention.4

Baird had visited the Epsom racecourse on 6 May two days before the press announcement at Long Acre to discuss 'officially the fixing of a television transmitter on the course'.5 The entry in Baird's diary for that day is '3.30 Epsom (Major Hill)'.6

On 19 May, Moseley wrote to Gladstone Murray at the B.B.C. to ask if they could provide transmitters on Derby day for Baird Television to use.7 The B.B.C. responded with an offer of the London national wavelength (261 metres) between 2.45 and 3.15 pm, provided that the Baird Company's voice commentary (that was to be provided by Moseley) would be on a separate telephone line from any rented from the B.B.C., and that there was no interference with the B.B.C.'s running commentary on radio.8 9 With only one transmitter, the sound available to domestic lookers-in would be the B.B.C.'s radio commentary while Moseley's commentary would be heard exclusively by the party observing on the commercial 'tin box' televisors set up at Long Acre.

The caravan was taken to Epsom and on 2 June, a preliminary test was made.10 One of the minor races was transmitted over the telephone wires to four televisors at Long Acre, a distance of fifteen miles. The outlines were somewhat blurred, and it was hoped that better results would be obtained the following day.

Source: H.J. Barton Chapple, 'Televising a Horse Race', Radio News (March 1932) 13(9), p. 757.

Derby day arrived, 3 June. Its events are well-summarised in the book John Logie Baird: a life:

...the van, with its mirror drum, was parked opposite the winning post, with a wooden scaffolding round it for the engineers and for Moseley, who was to do the commentary. Baird, having satisfied himself that all was well at that end, returned to Long Acre for the transmission. At Epsom, Moseley shared his perch with a crowd of adults and bawling children who seemed to be under the illusion that the temporary stand had been put up for their benefit. At Long Acre, press representatives and other interested parties crammed into two rooms to watch the proceedings on normal commercial receivers. They heard Moseley's commentary broadcast over a land line. Along with other viewers who were able to tune in to the images sent by land line to Long Acre and then transmitted via the BBC, they saw flickering representations of the crowd, the parade of horses before the race, and the finish. Much was ill-defined because of interference.

The vision and the overall planning were Baird's. The technical side was in the hands of his engineering staff, Jacomb, Campbell, Percy, and Bridgewater, who after World War II became chief engineer of outside broadcasting, and by the 1960s chief engineer of BBC Television, but without getting a knighthood.

The caravan on Derby day, 3 June 1931. Image courtesy Royal Television Society

Baird publicly pronounced himself satisfied with the transmission.11 His broadcast television system at this time was a thirty line picture with a 7:3 'portrait' aspect ratio. It had been configured to optimise head-and-shoulders views within the bandwidth of the radio transmitters then available. The aspect ratio was ideal for the studio programmes but wrong for showing a horse race. Bridgewater, who was stationed at Long Acre during the Derby broadcast, later recalled:

Before the race the horses could be seen milling around and movement made an enormous difference to a crude television picture. Movement, even if it was the subtle and slow movement of somebody’s face, always made such a difference to the recognition and interest. If the horses stopped you’d only just know it was a horse but moving made all the difference. The picture came to life. But when the race came on all that Campbell and I could do was to put on the sound commentary and wait for the finish. And when the finish came you just saw these figures flashing by. And, if it weren’t for the commentary you wouldn’t have known which horses they were.12

The number of people watching the broadcast was estimated to be as high as 5,000.13 The opinions of the press were 'divided between those who criticised the reception and those who applauded the fact that anything had been achieved at all'.14 15 The Falkirk Herald stated:

The picture presented to the onlookers, it is true, was small and somewhat flickering, and occasionally other telegraphic transmissions from the course blurred the outlines, but the course itself, with its crowds and marquees was easily identified, and the flying scud of horses careering into the Long Acre laboratories conveyed something of the thrill of the real thing, although it was impossible to identify the mounts. From “lookers” in various parts of the country, Mr Baird received several telegrams informing him that they had “picked up” the image from the B.B.C.16

A Mr. Willis, of Norwich, some 120 miles northwest of London stated: 'We could see the course, the grand stand and the procession of horses quite distinctly, in spite of interference. We could also see the horses flash past on the screen. This experiment was little short of sensational.'17

A Mr. Lamb, of Worthing, about seventy miles from London, reported:

We watched first of all the jostling crowd opposite the grand stand, and occasionally a policeman keeping the people from climbing the rails. Then came the parade, and we realised the wonder of seeing by wireless, as each horse and jockey passed slowly by.

After the parade we continued to watch the crowds of spectators until the start of the race, listening at the same time to the running commentary.

Then came the most exciting part. We listened with strained ears as we realized that within a moment or so the horses would be at the winning post, towards which we were looking. We all crowded round the televisor and at that moment Cameronian flashed past, closely followed by Orpen and Sandwich.

Of all the recent developments in television this broadcast of the Derby was, to my mind, the most wonderful.18

Gaumont Graphic newsreel footage of the Derby. Near the end of this film the caravan can be seen in the background clearly but very briefly (1:46 to 1:51, full screen recommended).

During a visit to America a few months later, on 18 October Baird gave a speech on the New York stations W.M.C.A. and W.P.C.H., announcing among other topics that the Baird company had brought similar television scanning apparatus to that used at the Derby with the hope of broadcasting television transmissions through W.M.C.A.19 W.M.C.A. had the exclusive right to broadcast Madison Square boxing matches. The Friday night fights and Broadway shows would have been significantly more suitable fare for his one-camera system than the Derby had been, and there would have been no time limits such as those imposed by the B.B.C.

In Britain, the original experiment had achieved a great deal, publicising the still very new medium of television, debuting the Baird company's new mirror drum scanning apparatus and daylight technique, exploring the possibilities of what would become known as the outside television broadcast (in the USA, a remote broadcast) and impressing even the B.B.C. The experiment also suffered from a number of hurdles: telephone and telegraph line interference, a time limit, and the difficulty in discerning far-away subjects and complex images filtered through only 30 scan lines—the maximum achievable with existing transmitters. However, Baird was pleased with the results overall and decided to televise the Derby again the following year. With his engineers, he began to devise a more ambitious experiment.

1 The caravan had a Dutch door, also called a double-hung door or half-door, divided in half horizontally such that the bottom half could remain shut while the top half was open.

2 Sydney A. Moseley, 'Televising the Derby, Mr. Baird Talks to Officials', Daily Herald (9 May 1931) 4752, p. 2.

3 Ibid.

4 Sydney Moseley, John Baird: The Romance and Tragedy of the Pioneer of Television, London: Odhams Press Ltd., 1952, p. 149.

5 Moseley, 'Televising the Derby', p. 2.

6 Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: a life, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing, 2002, p. 162.

7 Moseley, John Baird, p. 150.

8 Ibid., p. 151.

9 Kamm and Baird, p. 162.

10 Our Special Correspondent, 'The Derby to be Seen by Wireless', Daily Herald (2 June 1931) 4772, p. 9.

11 Kamm and Baird, pp. 162–163.

12 Russell W. Burns, John Logie Baird: television pioneer, London: The Insititution of Engineering and Technology, 2001, p. 219.

13 'Five Thousand European Radio Owners see Derby through Television Sets', The Province (3 June 1931). [Vancouver, Canada]

14 See, for instance, 'Sydney A. Moseley on Televising the Derby', Television (July 31) 4(41), pp. 172–173.

15 Kamm and Baird, p. 163.

16 'Televising the Derby', Falkirk Herald (6 June 1931) 8407, p. 6.

17 H.J. Barton Chapple, 'Televising a Horse Race', Radio News (March 1932) 13(9), p. 812.

18 Ibid.

19 John Logie Baird, 'A Broadcast Talk by John Logie Baird', Television (December 1931), pp. 380–381. For more information on Baird's visit to America, see also the article 'Baird in America' on this website.