Tag Archives: BBC

Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Polio: On the edge of eradication

Billionaire computer entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bill Gates, is to discuss the impact of polio on humanity at this evening’s annual BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture. His speech, which will be broadcast from the historic Royal Institution, will be supported with the visual aid of an iron lung from the Science Museum’s collection (1.03 mins in).

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The global effort to eradicate polio, which has reduced the number of recorded polio cases by 99 percent within the last two decades – from 350,000 cases a year in the late 1980s to 205 last year – has been funded, in part, by billions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation on the planet.

The effects of polio can be seen in the range and development of technology designed to relieve suffering. At its worst, polio survivors are unable to breath without assistance, and this lead to the development of the iron lung, or cabinet respirator, in the 1920s by Philip Drinker of Harvard University.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Although life-saving, early models were alarming and uncomfortable for patients, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Captain G T Smith-Clarke, a British engineer, devised a vastly superior device. Patients encased in the cabinet had pressurised air pumped into the chamber causing the lungs to inflate and deflate, enabling the patient to breathe.

The Smith-Clarke ‘Baby’ iron lung in our collection was acquired in 1990 from The Royal Free Hospital in London, where it had been standard equipment in the 1960s, but by 1990 they had become rare indeed.

With polio now prevalent in just three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – and with a continued global effort, total eradication is, for the first time, within our grasp.

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling!

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling! Ninety years ago today, at 5:33pm on 14th November 1922, the first British Broadcasting Company transmitter, 2LO, crackled into life – a moment when radio listening changed from a specialist hobby to a national pastime.

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

The BBC 2LO transmitter at Marconi House. Despite 22,500 volts running through the transmitter, the only attempt at health and safety was a flimsy metal barrier and small ‘Danger’ signs visible at the back of the picture. Source: Marconi Company

To celebrate this 90th anniversary, we invited the BBC to broadcast a special edition of Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime show live from the Science Museum and in front of invited guests, including acting Director General Tim Davie,  and part of the original BBC 2LO transmitter.

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

At 5:33pm, marking the exact time of the first ever BBC broadcast, 2LO Calling, a specially commissioned piece of music curated by Damon Albarn, was simultaneously broadcast to almost 80 million people across the globe via 60 BBC radio stations. This was an ambitious first for the BBC and a great way to celebrate the enduring power of radio.

Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public Histories at the Science Museum and Damon Albarn discuss the history of 2LO live on BBC Radio 2 in front of the original 2LO transmitter.

In the museum, we’re celebrating with a new exhibition opening on Nov 15, The Voice of the BBC. You can explore the history of early radio with the legendary 2LO transmitter used for the first BBC broadcasts, a ‘meat-safe’ BBC microphone and a 1923 copy of the Radio Times in this special exhibition.

The ‘Meatsafe’ Microphone

Known as “Meatsafe” due to its appearance, these microphones were wheeled into studios for recording. Source: BBC Photographic Library

These objects are part of the BBC Heritage Collection; 946 historical broadcasting objects celebrating 90 years of BBC history which have been donated to our sister museum – the National Media Museum - some of which are now on display in Bradford.

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