It Began With Dots And Dashes (17 October 1975)
In 1896 Signor Marconi was conducting his early wireless experiments on Salisbury Plain in co-operation with the British Army. They were using aerials held aloft by kites and balloons. Maintaining liaison between the transmitter and the receiver was young Sapper Alfred James Peerless, later to be the father of Mr Ken and Mr Bob Peerless, of Bletchley. Marconi succeeded in sending his dots and dashes over a distance of eight-and-a-half miles. Sapper Peerless signalled the results by flags. The birth of wireless telephony, television, radar, communication with men on the moon and all the rest was thus assisted by one of the oldest forms of visual signalling.
I doubt whether young Peerless guessed what was in store for the world at the time, but when he died in March, 1946, he had seen much of it come about. He was born near Dover in 1872 – two years before Marconi himself. He became a GPO telephonist while still a youth and joined the telegraph battalion of Royal Engineers in 1891. During the first world was he was on the instructing staff of Staple Hall. In all, he saw four campaigns and was demobbed three times. Later he joined the engineering department of the GPO, first at Leighton Buzzard and then at the Fenny Stratford Repeater Station.
He retired at the age limit, but in 1933 became night operator at the Bletchley Telephone Exchange and did that duty throughout the second world war.
Without doubt, wireless telephony, especially what we call broadcasting, has been the greatest scientific and social development of my time. Not that the original wireless telegraphy failed to capture the popular imagination. I have a collection of Edwardian music hall songs, among which is an amusing one called “The Wireless Telegraphy.”
But it was the beginning of regular broadcasting from Savoy Hill in 1922 that really set everybody agog. The impact was much greater than that made by television later, for that was merely a natural development after all, just as colour television has been.
Even grandma was delighted when she put the headphones on and could hear posh talk and music simply coming ~over the air.” How she loved comedian “John Henry,” violinist de Groot, and those other early broadcasters.
An enormous trade was done in wireless parts and in kits for one-valve sets and crystal sets. In those days the power for valve sets was not derived from the mains. Each valve set had to have a high tension battery, which was not rechargeable, and a low tension accumulator” which was.
Simultaneously, there were crystal sets. They needed (and need) no electricity to drive them. Hence, boys especially loved them and never stopped tinkering with them. All you needed was a coil which could be tapped at various points, a “cat’s whisker” and crystal, headphones and a home-made aerial. Then the local station, if not the world, was at your finger-tip. Thousands of crystal sets were manufactured at the beginning of the second world war when it was feared that power supplies might be cut off and batteries be unobtainable.
Loudspeakers of a sort soon came along and when these were followed by manufactured “all-mains” sets and superheterodynes the great days of D-I-Y wireless were as good as over.
Though “wireless” sets were, in fact, stuffed with wire, the word lasted so long that we oldies have never got into the way of saying “radio.” To us, it is a foreign concocted word and has an alien suggestion of bucking broncos about it. In my children’s encyclopaedia, published about 1924, the word is non-existent among nearly a dozen pages devoted to ”the wonders of wireless.”
It used to be considered quite an honour to perform for the BBC, and in 1927 that honour fell to the Bletchley Railway Children’s Choir. They had won a number of competitions against other railway choirs and were asked to broadcast in Children’s Hour on Station 2LO at Savoy Hill.
Their conductor was Mr Bill Muckley. He was a fitter in the railway telegraph department, a figure in the musical life of the town and a staunch member of the old Albert Street Primitive Methodist Church – now part of the Co-operative Society’s premises.
There are members of that choir still around the town. One of them tells me:
“It was an exciting day for us. We went up by train. For some reason, the boys and girls were told to be in different compartments, but we soon got over that.
“The studio wasn’t at all like the studios you see on television. It was just a large room, with curtains all round it and the microphone was in a box.
“Mr Muckley conducted, but they wouldn’t let our own pianist accompany us. One of their own pianists did that. Anyway, it went off all right.
“You know, a strange thing about Mr Muckley was that in conversation he was as deaf as a post, but he knew in a twinkling if you were singing flat.”
Actually, I can understand it. I am getting like that myself. There is a technical explanation, but this is not the place to go into it. Suffice it to say that, for this reason alone, I regret the tendency to introduce more women announcers. They are a strain, and it isn’t their fault.