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The Wireless


Aberdeen was picked by John Reith to be 1 of the BBC’s 1st stations and premises were sought in the area.  Accommodation was rented at the rear of Aberdeen Electrical Engineer’s property at 17 Belmont Street. Access to the premises was gained by the narrow stairway at the rear of the shop. On the 2nd floor were a couple of small offices and a large room.

The room was an old Meeting Hall overlooking the main Aberdeen to Inverness Railway line. It was converted into a rudimentary studio by draping heavy black curtains on the walls to deaden the noise from the passing trains. The studio was particularly affected by the vagaries of the North-East weather. The lack of central heating meant the temperature veered between freezing cold in the winter to boiling hot during the summer due to the building being West facing..

Radio was a very young science and the potential strength of transmissions was limited by technology and power consumption rather than frequency allocations. Additionally, the BBC needed to cover the greatest population in the quickest way possible to make the service profitable for the Company’s private shareholders.  This resulted in Citywide coverage for most areas, but little or no rural coverage.  The Aberdeen Radio Station was assigned the call sign ‘2BD’ and began broadcasting on 495 metres on a cold blustery evening on 10 October 1923. The Marquis of Aberdeen performed the ceremony before the evening’s transmission began in earnest. His opening address was heard at 9pm, followed by music from the band of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders. Among those attending the debut transmission were Station Director R. E. Jeffery, John Reith and the Lord Provost of Aberdeen. There, too, was Captain Peter Eckersley, the BBC’s charismatic and eccentric Chief Engineer.

The transmitter was located in the premises of the Aberdeen Steam Laundry Company in Claremont Street. From there the signal was sent to the Aerial, which was strung up between 2 tall Marconi radio masts.  Despite the low power, the initial broadcasts were heard in Norway and 2BD’s output was clearly picked up in the United States during International Radio Week in November 1924.

There was only one studio microphone, known technically as a Marconi Round Sykes. This weighed 25 pounds and was trundled round on a wheeled trestle base. The microphone was enclosed in a wire mesh and was likened by the Engineers to ‘a meat safe on a large tea trolley’. This gauze structure caused headaches for the technical boffins, especially in summer. Bluebottle flies frequently got inside from the bottom of the stand and became trapped in the mesh. When this happened, the listener could only hear a humming noise and the broadcast had to be interrupted while the offending insect was removed.  Station 2BD was one of the first to broadcast a weekly 15-minute sports programme in which Peter Craigmile, the international football referee, previewed forthcoming events. The Aberdeen station was responsible for another broadcasting 1st when it transmitted a Gaelic language programme in 1923.

The new medium attracted a lot of interest, and large crowds would gather outside electrical retailers when they relayed the broadcasts from huge loudspeakers.  Each broadcasting day lasted for 6 hours and consisted entirely of live broadcasts. Light music and comedy shows were particularly well received. The local news bulletins were also popular, especially during the General Strike in 1926. Local performers and musicians were enlisted to help and the Aberdeen Station could act as a springboard to greater things.  Local harmonica player Donald Davidson, known as the ‘Banchory Moothie’, secured a recording contract with Beltona Records after being discovered on 2BD.

The 2BD Repertory Company was established to perform adaptations of the classics as well as numerous offerings in the vernacular, mostly 1-act plays with a handful of characters. For example on Thursday 1 August 1926 listeners were treated to a Scots comedy by Jessie R.F. Allan called The Dark Gentleman. Looking through the cast lists, the same names appear again and again and it appears that local actors such as William Mair, Grace Wilson, George Dewar and Daisy Moncur were gainfully employed throughout that year.

One popular drama series was centred on a fictitious castle in Aberdeenshire. The House at Rosieburn told the tale of a witch burnt at the stake who, before she died, placed a curse on the inhabitants. One actor, playing a witch-finder, was the envy of his colleagues when he was given an official sanction to utter the line, “C’mon ye auld bitch!” Although tame by today’s standards, this was considered quite outrageous language at the time.

The station had its own 12-piece orchestra, formed in 1924, to provide musical entertainment. They dressed in full eveningwear for every performance and were only permitted to remove their jackets on particularly hot days in the summer. They couldn’t open a window because of the noise of the railway. The musicians had no choice but to sweat it out.  The orchestra was reduced to an octet in December 1926 before being disbanded in October 1929.

Local lad Harry Gordon was also a frequent visitor to Belmont Street, and his gramophone records and live broadcasts for the BBC made him one of Scotland’s highest paid entertainers. His fictitious town, Inversnecky, situated elusively “just outside Aberdeen” was populated by a host of weel-kent characters.

In May 1925 the studio and premises were extended. The BBC gained its own entrance and the address was altered to 15 Belmont Street. By this time R. E. Jeffery had left and Neil McLean had been appointed as station Director, with a staff of 2 assistants and 3 engineers.  The ‘listeners in’ as they were called, had to show a remarkable dedication to hear these early broadcasts. The simplest receiver was a crystal set, which used a germanium crystal as a rectifier - the 1st semi conductor. It enabled the listeners to tune in to the station on headphones, had a large aerial, and could locate a receptive part of the crystal using a wire probe called a cat’s whisker.

To obtain greater range or volume, a valve receiver was needed. This was much more expensive – a Radio valve cost a week’s wages and was extremely fragile. A large high tension Dry battery and a low tension wet accumulator provided the power, and the latter needed to be recharged.   These square glass jars with 2 terminals + and - were also full of corrosive acid, necessitating a good grip on its and a careful walk to the local charging dealer. With such a convenient handle it was difficult for boys not to try swing it round in horizontal and vertical circles wwith all the attendant dangers.  Most wealthy Radio owners had 2: one in use and 1 being charged.  Wireless dealers, cycle shops and garages recharged wet accumulators for 3d to 6d.  A loudspeaker – usually a metal or wooden horn fixed to a telephone receiver – was needed for a family group to listen in. These early horn speakers were replaced by the moving coil type, which appeared just before 1930 and still use today.  It also approved the general tone of John Reith’s programming, so not surprisingly, he became the 1st Director General of the BBC when the company became a Corporation on 1 January 1927.

But the days of 2BD were numbered. It was no longer feasible for BBC stations to continue on different wavelengths. Resources were being squandered by duplicating the same kind of programmes on each of the stations. A long-wave transmitter was opened in Chelmsford to carry the voice of the BBC to foreign shores.  The call sign of 2BD was last heard during 1929.  Gordon Bathgate

The term "wireless" came into public use to refer to a radio receiver, establishing its usage in the field of wireless telegraphy early on; Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun were awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics for their contribution to Wireless Telegraphy.  As a child I could not comprehend this strange term as when the back came off our Vidor Radio in order to replace the accumulator it was a mass of incomprehensible wires and valves etc. and a single wire aerial was necessary to receive a good signal which was stretched for some distance between 2 insulators on high with a down lead to the aerial socket.  Another was needed for an Earthing Terminal in the event of a lightning strike.  My naive parents use the adjacent copper gas supply pipe for this purpose without considering the obvious hazard. My mother only covered the mirror with a cloth when lighting storms threatened for some vague superstitious reason.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013