Televising the Derby (1932): from 30 lines to 90 lines

by Iain Logie Baird, 1 June 2022

The televising of the 1932 Epsom Derby is easily confused with the 1931 Derby first televised by Baird (see my article about this broadcast here). In that experiment, the main obstacle he and his engineers had faced had been the quality of the images. Picture quality was restricted by the 30-line maximum imposed by the bandwidth limitations of BBC transmitters designed for audio, not video. The 30-line standard had been acceptable for head-and-shoulders views from the studio but it had been very difficult or impossible to discern the more complex, distant, and fast-moving images of a horse race.

The evidence presented here shows that the essential design of the 1932 Derby experiment was not recent, dating back at least two years. It is also shown how the telecast marked not only a new beginning but, less obviously, the end of an era in British television.

The Three-zone System

The technology Baird debuted for the 1932 Derby promised a substantial improvement in picture quality by tripling the number of scan lines using a three zone system. In January 1931, eighteen months earlier, Baird had first demonstrated the prototype three zone apparatus for the press, using it to televise the Surrey and England cricketer Herbert Strudwick giving a cricket lesson while illuminated by an ordinary spotlight in the Baird studio. After the demonstration, Baird announced his intention to develop this apparatus 'for use in theatres and cinemas as apart from home television'.1 Subsequently, increased investment in the Baird Company by Isidore Ostrer of the Gaumont British Film Corporation meant further advantages in moving forward with the idea.

A drum scanner (the 'television camera' in modern terms) was installed in an ordinary caravan - the same caravan that had been used in 1931. For the three zone system, it had been decided that they would dispense with a large square mirror attached to the inside of the caravan's hinged door which had been used to redirect the desired images toward the drum. Although the removal of this intermediate step provided additional stability to the three signals, improving the synchronisation and focus, it meant that the 'camera' was in an even more fixed situation than it had been in the previous year.

The mirror drum inside the Baird Television Ltd. caravan in 1932. Note the extra width of the board below the lens (to accomodate three photo-electric cells with their amplifiers) thus distinguishing this scanning apparatus from the similar arrangement used for the 1931 demonstration. Image courtesy the estate of Dr. Graham Winbolt.

The drum was approximately two feet in diameter and had thirty mirrors around its circumference. As it rotated, each mirror reflected the image (that came in through the caravan window via a large lens) downward through another lens onto a row of three independently wired photo-electric cells (conspicuously removed from their position on the inclined board below the lens in the photograph above). Due to the mirrors being progressively tilted, the image was divided into thirty strips for each cell, each strip sending out a varying current, which after amplification was sent into the building. The frame rate continued to be the standard 12 1/2 images per second, with the drum rotating at 750 rpm.

The caravan outside the Baird Company premises at 133 Long Acre circa May 1932. Image courtesy Alexandra Palace Television Society.

A pictorial diagram showing the general arrangement of the Derby television apparatus. After the race, this diagram appeared in Television magazine.

The three-zone transmitting equipment that was used at the Long Acre studio. The images of the subject(s) reflected from the mirror drum were focused through a single lens and converted to electric impulses by three photo-electric cells with their amplifiers housed in the wooden box below, with each cell responsible for 30 lines of the 90 line image. On either side of the drum are two powerful floodlights. This apparatus was first demonstrated in January 1931 and is photographed here circa 1932. Image courtesy Harry Moore.

A large three-zone commutator generated the synchronising signal for the mirror drums at Epsom, Long Acre and the Metropole cinema. The commutator was located at Long Acre. Image courtesy Alexandra Palace Television Society.

The Experiment

Russell Burns observed, that ‘from the outset of his life's work on television, Baird had been interested in cinema television’.2 Soon after he began his earliest work on television in Hastings, the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer reported in January 1924, ‘A Scotsman has come... to Hastings [who] is now engaged upon perfecting an invention which at some not very distant date may enable people to sit in a cinema and see on the screen the finish of the Derby at the same moment as the horses are passing the post, or maybe the Carpentier-Dempsey fight...’. In 1930, he first tried television for a large audience with a large screen comprised of 2,100 small one-watt lamps. He demonstrated this theatre television system, with a screen two feet by five feet, at the London Coliseum theatre, subsequently taking it on a tour to Berlin, Paris, and Stockholm.

In 1932, to show the Epsom Derby on a large screen the venue that was decided upon was the recently constructed Metropole Cinema, 160 Victoria Street, Victoria, S.W.1., London. It had almost 2,000 seats. Although it would have been possible to transmit three separate 30-line signals over the fourteen miles with radio transmitters, telephone lines were plentiful and a much more practical solution. Six telephone lines in total were used. One for each of the three television zones, one for sound, with the remaining two for synchronisation and as a control line.3

The lines went first to Long Acre and from there to the Metropole. At the cinema, three arc lamps were focused through three Kerr cells. These would modulate the light according to the strength of the incoming signals from the telephone lines after the latter had each been channelled through an amplifier. Each Kerr cell was responsible for one section of the screen. The single mirror drum at the projector rotated at the same speed as the one in the caravan. Each of its thirty mirrors was at a slightly different angle to scan the picture line by line.

Most of the telephone lines led to a bank of amplifiers which had been installed behind the screen in the Metropole. Baird engineer Paul Reveley at left and possibly D.R. Campbell in the background. Image courtesy London News Agency.

In late May 1932, things were set up at the Metropole by Baird and his assistants, particularly Paul Reveley, who slept at the cinema for the final three days, so concerned was he that things should be right on the day.4

The television apparatus at the Metropole. Image courtesy Odhams Press.

The mirror drum was enclosed in a black metal enclosure with a curved top which prevented light leakage. From a square opening in the side, the images for all three zones were projected out horizontally, reflecting off of a mirror positioned at forty-five degrees to the screen. This mirror arrangement seems to have been necessary due to the lack of space available behind the cinema's curtains. The mirror was adjacent to a large dark-painted frame which had a window at one corner through which the images were back-projected onto the screen. The screen is not shown in the photograph above. It was not the cinema's regular one, but a smaller one approximately nine feet wide by seven feet tall.5

The frontage of the Metropole Cinema as it looked on Derby Day. Installed on top of the marquee was an impressive model of a broadcast radio aerial with the word TELEVISION in block letters. Image courtesy Bridgeman Photography.

The Show at the Metropole

The day before the Derby, the system was partially tested with a feed from the studio at Long Acre to the Metropole. A scene from the upcoming film, Men of Steel, was performed live by its stars Heather Angel and John Stuart and watched at the cinema by an audience approaching two thousand.6 While this was a success, Baird and the engineers stationed at the Metropole nonetheless stayed up all night putting finishing touches to the apparatus.7

A subsequent poster image for 'Men of Steel' (approximately September 1932) showing John Stuart and Helen Angel. Image courtesy United Artists.

1 June was Derby Day. Over two thousand people were present in the Cinema – a full house – with people sitting in the aisles causing it to exceed its official capacity.8 People were also gathered in the passages and entrance hall, and the street outside was filled with a disappointed crowd unable to get in.9

Introductory remarks were made by H.J. Barton-Chapple of Baird Television Ltd.10 Then, the curtains opened to reveal the television screen with all three zones already in operation. The voice of the commentator at Epsom, John Thorne, was heard over the sound system.

A description is given in the July number of Discovery.

When the pictures appeared first it was possible to distinguish the grandstand and a section of the course in the flickering images which flashed across the screen. Then the famous parade began, and horse after horse was clearly seen as it passed in front of the television apparatus. It was difficult to distinguish details, and someone was heard to remark that the horses looked more like camels. Each jockey and horse appeared as a single moving object, but the general impression was excellent. At one moment three or four horses were seen on the screen together, and showed the greater range covered by the open air transmission compared with the usual studio images.11

This was the effect of the 90 lines of vertical scanning as opposed to the 30-line system that was used for broadcasting. The 30-line system had been on the air since September 1929, offering a handful of regular broadcasts each week during the BBC's off-hours. It may seem that viewers on conventional home televisors couldn't see any more of the Derby than they had seen in 1931, but changes such as the removal of the mirror, and fewer problems with interference meant some improvement for the at-home audience as well. Only the Metropole audience could see the additional left and right parts of the picture.

An interval of some minutes followed, during which the announcer again described the scene, and then a great shout went up from the crowd, which was being heard faintly all the time as a background to the speaker’s remarks. The race had begun. Immediately the screen was exposed again, and the audience was rewarded by seeing the winning horses flash neck to neck across the screen. A few seconds later the runners-up followed in twos and threes, these being more distinct than the winners, as they passed at a more leisurely speed. After the race it was possible to see the crowd moving on to the course, rather like a swarm of ants, and the winners were led past by their owners, though this was the least satisfactory part of the transmission. Everyone agreed that it was a very remarkable achievement.12

Afterward, the feed was switched to one from the Baird studios at Long Acre, with Sydney Moseley of Baird Television Ltd. making some comments on the experiment.13

Baird made a brief appearance on stage at the very end of the show. He was too tired to say anything, and just stood there during the thunderous applause. Ben Clapp recalled: 'Baird was standing beside me on stage and he suddenly said: 'Mr. Clapp, I'm finished.' And there was a chair beside him and I pushed it under him and I think he'd have gone on the floor if I hadn't done so he was so exhausted'.14

In his memoir, Baird recalled: 'This demonstration was one of the most nerve-racking experiences in my television work ... If the show had been a failure, which might easily have happened, the audience would probably have wrecked the house. I should have been a complete laughing stock. However, all went well...'.15

British Pathé newsreel footage of the Derby. Near the beginning of this film, the back of the Baird caravan can be seen very briefly (1:24 to 1:26, full screen recommended).

Percy, who had been responsible for operating the scanner in the caravan, had sent the carpenter home before the race because he had gotten drunk.16 After the race, the carpenter returned, still drunk, proudly announcing 'April the Fifth, Mr. Percy! April the Fifth!' dropping a large sum of money on the caravan floor. He had failed to comprehend that he had been handed his fare home and instead had bet it all on a horse on Percy's behalf. 'April the Fifth' was the name of the winning horse, and he had won!17

Press Coverage

Stories about the demonstration appeared in most of the newspapers but most of the coverage lacked detail. A special arrangement, however, had been made with The Illustrated London News, which was supplied with photographs and additional information by the Baird Company. It printed the story along with labelled illustrations by G.H. Davis revealing the technical workings of the system in significant depth, along with a full-page painting, in monochrome, of the audience and screen at the Metropole.18

Illustrations by G.H. Davis outlining the technology used for the 1932 Derby television transmission to the Metropole Cinema. Note in particular the lack of a mirrored door on the caravan. Image courtesy the Illustrated London News Group.

The audience's point of view at the Metropole on 1 June 1932. Illustration by G.H. Davis. Image courtesy the Illustrated London News Group.

Televising the Oaks Race

The experiment was repeated on 3 June with the Oaks race, and although the visibility was not so good as that on Derby Day, it was attended with equal success. The finish of the race was not so close, with the result that the horses were seen to better advantage as each passed the winning post.19 'Variety turns by television' were also shown three times daily during the few days the television apparatus was installed in the cinema.20 Notable people who appeared on the Metropole's screen during that week included Sir Ambrose Fleming, Sir Richard Gregory, and Sir Ian Hamilton.21 An unwavering supporter of Baird, Fleming was an English electrical engineer and physicist who had invented the first thermionic valve. Gregory, an astronomer and promoter of science, was also the editor of the journal Nature. Hamilton had served in several colonial military campaigns before being placed in charge of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in the unsuccessful campaign against Turkey at Gallipoli.

In 1945, part of the interior of the Metropole and the organ appear in a short scene in the film Brief Encounter. The Metropole closed as a cinema in 1977, and the auditorium was sadly demolished in 1984, but the façade and foyer remained standing along Victoria Street until about 2011 when (even more sadly) they too were demolished to make room for an extension of Victoria Underground Station.22


In contrast with the 1931 experiment which had used a mirror on the inside of the caravan’s hinged door, in 1932, scanning was done through a lens pointed directly at the scene, as shown in the Davis illustrations and as indicated by the caravan’s orientation in the British Pathé film. The new experiment was successful in removing a number of the hurdles from 1931 – most of the telephone and telegraph line interference, the time limit imposed by the BBC, and most importantly, the difficulty in discerning far-away subjects and complex images filtered through only 30 scan lines.

The three zone system was something that Baird had already demonstrated on a smaller scale in the laboratory, and it might thus be tempting to argue (lackadaisically) that the Derby demonstration was done purely for publicity, but many other factors were involved. In debuting the Baird Company's improved mirror drum scanning apparatus and three zone projector, it introduced a suddenly higher-quality medium of television to a cinema audience. It proved, by extending pictures up to 90 lines, that television had mass entertainment value. It was also an exploration of the potential of televising live events for cinema audiences – the first time, in fact, that television had been part of a film programme. The audience experience supported earlier statements made by Baird that television had begun its own race toward someday rivalling the cinema. It demonstrated the possibility of a future of ‘television for all’ via collective viewing, with the cost of home television reception beyond the reach of most households. Like the demonstration in 1931, here again was the crucial instantaneity that was and still is one of the main powers of television. The Derby with its familiar photo-finish was an ideal situation in which to demonstrate television's potential.

Here too was a means of circumventing radio, and thus the BBC broadcast monopoly. By utilising the telephone network, a national network of cinemas set up for television was a real possibility.23 Such a system would have been expensive to set up and operate, with pictures limited to 90–150 lines.24 The phone line idea would not be explored further. The increasing investment in Baird's company from British Gaumont Film Corporation that had supported the Metropole demonstration would, however, support Baird's further work concerning television for cinemas. Although the BBC had been obstructive to television in prior years, they began to see the value in it and by the time of the June 1932 Derby demonstration had already agreed to take over the production as well as the broadcast of television programmes on 30 lines. This officially happened on 22 August. The second broadcast of the Derby can therefore be interpreted, somewhat counterintuitively, as a grand finale for Baird and his company as the original programme-makers of British television.

1 'New Television Wonder, Famous Cricketer in Demonstration', Dundee Courier (3 January 1931), p. 4.

2 Russell W. Burns, John Logie Baird: Television Pioneer, London: The Institution of Engineering Technology, 2001, p. 333.

3 R. Howard Cricks, 'Making Television History. Baird’s Derby Transmission from Epsom.' Kinematograph Weekly (9 June 1932), p. 56.

4 Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: A Life, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing, 2002, p. 217.

5 John Logie Baird, Television and Me: The Memoirs of John Logie Baird, Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 2004, pp. 106–107.
6 See 'First Televised Cinema Show', Daily News (1 June 1932), p. 9 and [Photograph caption], The Daily Mirror (1 June 1932), p. 61. Men of Steel does not appear ever to have been shown (again?) on television in the UK, nor has it been made available for home video. The film has survived and is presently available to view by appointment at any of the Mediatheques run by the British Film Institute.
7 Baird, p. 107.
8 'Television. Finish of the Derby.' The Australiasian (20 August 1932), p. 42.

9 Baird, p. 107.

10 Cricks.
11 'Television. Finish of the Derby.'

12 Ibid.

13 Cricks.

14 Bruce Norman, Here's Looking at You: The Story of British Television 1908–1939, London: The Royal Television Society, 1984, p. 60.

15 Baird, p. 107.

16 J.D. Percy, 'Percy: April the Fifth', interviewed in Donald F. McLean, The Dawn of Television Remembered (audio transcript), London: TV Dawn, 2004, p. 17.

17 Ibid.

18 G.H. Davis, 'How the Derby Finish was seen by a Cinema Audience 14 Miles Away.' The Illustrated London News (11 June 1932), pp. 966–967.

19 'Television. Finish of the Derby.'

20 'Televising the Derby', The Scotsman (1 June 1932), p. 14.

21 'Television Transmission', Queenslander (20 October 1932), p. 45.


23 In terms of audio, a network similar to this had experienced some success, while predating radio broadcasting. A distributed audio system operated in London between 1895 and 1925 called Electrophone. Using conventional telephone lines, it relayed live theatre performances, music hall shows, and Sunday church services to subscribers who listened over special headsets.

24 Baird's competitors, HMV (His Master's Voice), developed and demonstrated a five zone television apparatus capable of creating 150 line television pictures.