My year in Fleet Street Part 1 – Eric Vast

In 1928 I had just finished a year’s research in Lubricating Oil, and also had failed to get a job in that business. Somehow I got to hear that the Daily Express needed somebody to look after the Picture Transmission equipment,  which they were buying from the Americans, so I applied. This was not really my line but I was lucky. The chief engineer of the Express knew even less about the subject than I did.  He offered me £6 per week  ( multiply by 50 to get present day values ), 6 weeks probation on half pay, all subject to the approval of the Americans, who were to install the equipment. As I and my widowed mother had been living on a war pension of 30 shillings a week, this was riches indeed.

The Daily Express at the time was owned by Lord Beaverbrook. He was personally pushing it all along. The Paper had originated in Shoe Lane, but his Lordship had acquired a frontage in Fleet Street which connected up with the Shoe Lane building. The new offices had a very smart German black and yellow glass front, which is still a prominent feature of lower Fleet Street  though it no longer houses the Express. The circulation of the newspaper at that time was 3 million per day, and it was the largest in the world. His Lordship meant it to remain so, and had caused to be installed a battery of very large and fast Goss printing presses and all other necessaries to match.

He had been greatly impressed when visiting the states by the Western Electric version of Picture Transmission equipment set up as a public service between New York and Boston.  So much so that he bought 3 complete sets for the three Express Offices as London, Manchester, and Glasgow. It was a lot better than rival RCA or Siemans gear, and cost the equivalent of four million pounds of today’s money. The deal included 3 American installers, who were supposed to know all about it.  The first of the yanks showed up, and presented me with manuals to study. As the equipment was operated in a fairly bright red light, it was planned to build a small suite in semi-deserted Shoe Lane, part of the premises to house the operating gear, converters, batteries, etc. Some rather special arrangements were also put in hand.

When the big presses were operated at full speed, the whole building rocked. The site had once been a marsh, either from the Fleet of the Thames, and it was a raft of some primeval concrete some 5 foot thick over the whole site. It was feared that the equipment would be upset by the vibration and the pictures spoilt. In those days there was a writer on all matters technical, one Professor A.M.Low. He was not really a Professor, but he taught a t the Military Academy at Woolwich, where all the lecturers had the courtesy title of ‘Professor’. Anyway he appeared and made his measurements, and produced a design for a filter to remove the vibration. This was to caste a block of concrete some 20 tons in weight, supported by a number of car rear axle springs, with the sensitive apparatus all mounted on a floating block. At the time of my arrival strong men were digging through the 5 feet of concrete raft, with sledge and wedge, to enable a pit to be made for housing the ‘filter’. When finished to everybody’s surprise it actually worked.

Meanwhile the rest of us got on with the Power Supply. The big presses were supplied with 800 volts DC, and the lesser sized ones with 400 volts DC. This was not much use for us. Converters were fitted to produce American style 115 volts DC, and a lower voltage for battery charging. The more technical part of the installation ran on 24 volt accumulators, and 130 volt ones for the HT supply. This was standard practice then. Studio Telephone Exchanges and the like, were all on this sort of supply. There were of course 2 sets of batteries, one in use and the other on charge.

As the general tarting up of the building was still going on, nobody except a few Top Brass got a fixed office. I got shifted in to share with lesser beings a number of times. Once I was put in with the famous ‘Beachcomber’ of that time. I don’t think he really liked me, he never replied to my morning greeting, and when I was there he studiously read the newspaper. Another character was a hoot, he had new ideas on everything. I remember I was harangued on the errors of Darwin, as it was obvious that monkeys were debased descendants of men. His job was to keep the Daily Express Share register up to date. This he did and a great deal more. It seemed that Lord Beaverbrook had a large block of the Ordinary Shares, sufficient for control. The general members of the public were being allocated non-voting Preference Shares, plus a small fraction of that number of Ordinary Shares each.

The one day the equipment was sighted in London Docks. The Customs and Excise did their usual act. The promptly claimed that the device was a camera and should be charged duty at some enormous rate. In the end we paid duty on a few not very expensive lenses only. I was to see them trying the same trick years later when the first Ampex Video Recorder was imported by AR. That time the tried to prove the machine was a Musical Instrument.

The gear was shipped from the docks to Shoe Lane where there was a crane rated as one ton lift. The biggest box weighed 2100 lbs and started a big argument as the Americans were only used to 2000 lb tons and feared the worst.  The contents were the pre-wired rack on which the bulk of the equipment was mounted. In those days you got something for your money, good solid steel angle, steel panels 3/16 inch thick, and speech transformers weighing several pounds each. The receiving and transmitting tables were also pre-wired with appropriate  apparatus mounted in situ. All connections were brought out to standard Post Office 40-way blocks for cross-wiring. At this stage the LCC Inspectors began to take an interest. The objected to the rack wiring which was open bundles of wire lashed to shallow trays. They demanded that all wire should be put into conduit. Now the Americans had used solid wire everywhere. At that time they would not use stranded wire as there was a belief that it was noisy, and that the electric current hopped about from one strand to another causing noise in low voltage
installations. Some of the wire involved was really hefty, and would have been impossible to get round a bend. After a lot of argument they withdrew their ruling, when it was pointed out to them that almost every wire had its little Grasshopper fuse; there were rows and rows of them.

However we had by no means heard the last of the stranded wire story. The master plan called for the main earth to be solid ASWG gauge 3 conductor, and an insulated one at that. This took months to arrive and 36 ft of it duly appeared, and was connected firmly to an incoming High Pressure Hydraulic Main, which supplied the lifts which carried the big rolls of paper from one level to another.

When set out the equipment was found to be nicely  made . As received it was intended for the source to be a Transparency, this was made to rotate and move along a lathe bed by the action of a lead screw with 100 threads to the inch, plus a rotating splined shaft for the rotation. It could operate in either direction. A spot of light was focused on to the film, and a photo-cell was placed inside the rotating film to collect the signal. It was nothing special, but as its sensitivity was only 2 microvolts per lumen, it was an early potassium one. There was plenty of light from the spot to provide a sensible signal. The cell current passed to a DC amplifier made up of many Dry batteries and a few resistances, which was an absolute so-and-so to set up. It was however stable enough when finally adjusted. The signal still having the DC component then passed to a modulator, where it took the audio carrier frequency.

The drive for the carriage was a two-phase 115 volt 60 Hz motor of low power produced by a 60 Hz tuning fork. The motor was a fly-wheel of lightly made metal, and contained some 14 lbs of mercury. This enabled a start to made with a dog-clutch, as the light flywheel could quickly accelerate, and the liquid mercury could catch up a few seconds later. The motors were not self-starting, but they could run in either direction if brought up to speed with a modified hand-drill. They had I think 20 pairs of poles and ran quite slowly. It was easy to run them up to speed and they locked in readily.

The master tuning fork in London was tuned by little weights on the prongs to as near 60 Hz as we could get it. It had the usual make and break contact and drive solenoid. Extra contacts produced the 60 Hz two phase power for the motor. Yet another chopped up the 250 Hz tone, which was sent down the line to ultimately control the slave forks at the distant stations. At all these stations the 250 Hz tone was converted into 60 Hz AC and set to drive the local fork. This was then tuned to maximum amplitude by moving the bob weights.

Once during my stay with the ‘Express’ there was great excitement as the Glasgow fork amplitude had dropped to half. With some difficulty it was traced to the weather! The elasticity of the prongs of a tuning fork are affected to a small extent by the elasticity of the medium they are in, namely Air. That particular day there was relatively high pressure over London, and an intense area of low pressure over Glasgow. The Glasgow fork was returned, and I prophesied that on the morrow they would have to do it again as the depression moved on, and so they did. One difference between the Transmitters and the Receivers was never explained. Instead of the Mercury filled flywheels the Receivers had a light sold flywheel on the motor and a heavy cylinder on a shaft rotating on the receiver carriage.

The actual recording device which varied the amount of light falling on the photographic paper, was a typical Bell Labs ‘Lightvalve’. This had a single dural ribbon flanked at each side by knife edges not quite in the plane of the ribbon. The ribbon was in a very strong magnetic field, and was tensioned to resonate at the carrier frequency. This might have expected to have given a heavily peaked response, but the high magnetic field kept it down to a few Dbs ( or TUs as they were then ). During a period of operation deep red lighting was used. After some hours in this it seemed to have changed to a rather nasty shade of pale pink.

The Post Office provided a four wire system of lightly loaded cable for the system. It had hoped to get unloaded lines, but these we could not have. The small loading coils gave as expected a low pass filter effect which included a phase shift, which the long run to Glasgow turned into a nasty ‘ring’. However the Bell Labs produced after calculations a Phase corrector which cleared the distortion. The Post Office heard of this and for no apparent reason, insisted that it must be installed in their premises. So yours truly was sent over to Carter Lane Repeater Station to stick it on a rack. I supposed they wanted to see what a Phase corrector looked like. The racks at all stations were fitted with a telephone set. We greatly improved things by fitting a loud speaker monitor on each line at all stations. You could then hear the warbling tones of a picture as it was being transmitted, and at the same time receive reports and instructions on the other pair.

There were I think at that time 14 repeater stations between us and Glasgow. For the first weeks of transmission they spoilt nearly half the pictures sent, by sticking phones across the line to hear what it sounded like. Every time they did we got a level change, which caused a stripe on the picture. Also the lines had poor signal to noise ratio. We had expected this, and sent the whole picture information compressed into a range of 12 Db. It was brought back to its original state by adjusting the intensity of the Lightvalve illumination.

Things went badly for a time. The Art Department produced too much variation in the transparencies. We had to rapidly organise an area which we made our own, rigidly adhering to time and temperature development. We produced quite acceptable pictures over the whole network, with perhaps just a tiny loss of contrast, but it took too long to prepare the transparencies. We started an investigation into to how a picture could be got from a normal black and white Press photograph using the reflected light, rather than using the intermediate transparency. After a good many trials a successful technique was evolved.

The actual printing of the picture  by the big presses was done by the Half Tone process, which in these days was almost unbelievably complicated, ( it probably has little changed over the years ). It is still extensively used. The picture is made up of little black dots of various dimensions to build up the picture. In a good half tone the regular spaced dots are upwards 50 to the inch in exactly square layout. Where the blackest part of the picture occurs the dots just touch; at lighter tones the dots are smaller and the white of the paper shows. In the lightest parts they should be just about disappearing. Commonly you get a range from no dots at all, to a blob of ink with dots only visible in the intermediate tones. How this is done is interesting.

A photograph is set up and a negative is made of it through a screen bearing the appropriate number of holes; in my day this was done on the old wet plate. A sheet of glass was coated with collodion, stuck in a dish of Sodium Nitrate solution, ripened in some devil’s brew and exposed. These plates had no grain. The picture thus broken up into little dots was then projected, using an arc lamp, on to a zinc plate coated with a mixture of gelatine and Potassium Bichromate. The light makes this mixture tough and less soluble in water. The plate was then exposed to a spray of Sulphuric acid, the softer gelatine being washed away, and the etching process started. The plate then was covered with spots of gelatine of various sizes and toughness and etched areas of zinc. At this time it was washed in water, and dusted with a cloud of mainly resin particles, which adhered to the dots of gelatine giving added protection. Etching then restarted and then the plate began to resemble a field of tiny mushrooms on conical stalks of different heights. The trick was to stop when the tops all fell off, leaving a landscape of sharp little cones of various heights. these when inked and pressed into the paper by the big presses.

The picture plates were then made up into flat assemblies in a sort of frame with the letters of the text. and sent to the Stereotypers. These people made an impression of a flexible slab of material which could be bent to the shape of the printing rollers. It then went to the foundry and printing rollers were cast. It was rather a marvel that the results were as good as they were. Printing ink had to be spread evenly on the rollers, being pressed over a number of small rubber faces ones in series. It took a fair time to get things right, and the ceremony of running up, wasted many copies of the paper. Ocassionly a roller might be changed with the presses still running slowly to keep the ink supply from getting mucked up. Men would get inside the massive working parts, and slip a fresh roller on. This was dangerous, and I doubt it is allowed nowadays.

I went to Glasgow for while to help with the new installation. The Transmission room was down a long subterranean passage, which had once connected 2 buildings together, but was then blocked off. At night we could never get the lads from the Art Department to bring the pictures down because of the Ghost. The passage ran beside an old burial ground, and most evenings there were loud crashes the other side of the wall. I heard them myself. Also the very good latch on our door often used to come open for no apparent reason. The causes of the ‘crashes’ were discovered when the Police raided a shebeen set up in one of the vaults, based on the ‘red biddy’ Meths and Port Wine dregs.

The customers were throwing empty bottles against our wall. We suffered from this also in London. The Printers there also used to creep into our area in the old building with the odd quart bottle and throw the empty at our wall.

After about a year things got very routine and having heard that our colleagues in Bush House were seeking engineers to install the new Talkies, I allowed myself to be lured away to sample the joys(?) of travel, generous expenses, and an unlimited supply of Usherettes. It had been a very interesting year, at least  I had learnt to solder properly.

Eric Vast – July 1994.

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