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The high cost of listening in...

 Broadcasting began officially in the UK in 1922 when the British Broadcasting Company was formed. This was the "BBC"; not the "Corporation" as we know it today but the "Company".

Before this date one could hear broadcasts but nothing particularly official. There had been radio enthusiasts and amateurs around since Victorian times, some of whom actually transmitted music and programme material to their neighbours. Many countries outside the UK were also poised to begin broadcasting. We were not alone and many of the broadcasts one could hear emanated from the Continent or, if you had a really sensitive set and a decent aerial, from the USA. See Early stations

Proper high fidelity broadcasts did not really get started until the technology for transmitters had been developed. The earliest voice transmissions required a carbon microphone to be inserted in the aerial feed of a transmitter. Any semblance of high power needed water cooling of the microphone and it must have been a little off putting for a budding radio personality to start his career in this way.

The first world war accelerated progress, when speech transmissions to and from aircraft were instituted. High power transmitting valves were designed to improve the range of communication, and using similar technology, between 1918 and 1922 decent broadcast transmitters had been established.

From the outset however, at least in the UK, the cost of receiving the BBC was extortionate. The BBC needed finance so one had to buy a license to legally receive transmissions. Not only that but sets needed to be approved for use. Marconi, the chap that had grasped the importance of radio, and proved that it could be put to use for communicating information, held a number of patents. These included not only patents concerned with his own developments, but also those he had purchased from fellow experimenters.

When radio transmissions became narrow-band, rather than broad band spark it was the principle of tuning or syntony that was employed. Although today this is an obvious feature of radio, in the early days it was not. Broad band transmitters and receivers were the norm and as the airwaves became more and more crowded so the difficulty increased in resolving the station to which you were listening. The frequency of the buzzing could be altered somewhat, so individual transmissions could be recognised, but eventually something better had to be invented.

The dramatic improvement came with tuning. Now one could twiddle the receiver and identify the wanted signal clearly. Before Marconi could make use of this indispensible feature however he really needed to sort out the patent position. Once he had purchased the rights to this he had cornered the wireless market, at least in Europe.

How could he capitalize on all his hard work over the previous 20 years? The answer was not straightforward but the solution resolved itself in a relatively simple way. He would charge a levy on every receiver made. To make the most of this, the more expensive receivers would attract larger royalty payments and the cheaper receivers less. Simply, every valve in the receiver would attract a cash payment from the manufacturer to Mr.Marconi. Soon, some clever people sold radio sets without valves to avoid Marconi's tax. Low low prices for the radio and you can buy your valves locally (foreign valves naturally). Not to be outdone Mr Marconi simply changed the wording of the rules... not valves, but "valveholders".

The valve tax had a number of side effects. The crystal set had no valves and even though it was insensitive, inselective and had only a tiny output suitable for high impedance headphones, because it attracted no royalty payment by virtue of not using valves, it's popularity was guaranteed way beyond its true worth. If one needed to drive several sets of headphones or even a loudspeaker, all was not lost because valve-less amplifiers were available for this purpose. These used a combination of earpieces close coupled to carbon microphones.

All sorts of contortions were employed by manufacturers in order to get the best return from the new industry. The key ploy was to form an association to which all set makers were forced to join. Wholesalers and retailers would be blacklisted if they attempted to overstep the rules and, for example sell foreign valves or foreign wireless sets. An echo from the past is still to be heard when one sees a "Defiant" Radio. The Co-op, whose brand name this was, was one of the rebellious retailers trying to get the best deal for their customers and hence their choice of name.

Not only sets and valves but the ubiquitous battery was also included in price fixing.

Wholesalers were encouraged to sell only to bona-fide retailers and much energy was expended in trying to define exactly what a "Retailer" was. To stop the so called "dabblers" from infringing in the radio trade and thus detracting from retailers profits, it had been agreed that a retailer should actually have a shop window in which his wares were to be displayed for a certain minimum time per year. He would also have to maintain a stock of say £50 throughout the year.

Stories abounded in letters to the press. "A certain dabbler in my neighbourhood is selling 60volt Vidor HT batteries for 6/6d! How can I survive if this continues?" Part of the solution was to institute a variable discount scheme. "Proper" retailers could get a third off the "fixed in concrete" retail price but "Dodgy" retailers or "dabblers" would get only twenty per cent. Woe betide the retailer that attempted to cut his prices to attract more business. He would soon discover that his suppliers would mysteriously be "out of stock".

Popularity of home built sets was extremely high. One could shop around for a kit of parts; less valves if you wished. Then you could go under cover and procure a set of foreign valves at a fraction of the British Valve Association figure. I wonder how many bona fide retailers had boxes of foreign valves under the counter for their special customers?

During the 20s things were really cut-throat. There were hundreds of radio manufacturers and retailers. Bicycle shops were often the place you took your accumulator to be charged. They were able to become radio retailers in their own right because of this loophole in the rules and to increase turnover, took in sets for repair. All in all, many of the flood of entrepreneurs, with more enthusiasm for making money, than skill and expertise in radio, found that after some initial success, followed by expansion, they were insolvent.

How times have changed! The Marconi Company who were raking in money hand-over-fist on the back of their radio patents, and who stayed cash-rich under Lord Weinstock, until he retired, are now themselves struggling for survival, in October 2002, with a share price of just 1.5p.

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