From the vaults

24 July 2012
Sir Isaac Shoenberg

Sarah Hale describes how technology and sport have gone hand in hand to bring events like the Olympics to the homes of the masses.

Technology and sport

The IET Archives holds frustratingly little material on anything related to sport, athletes or international sporting events - it seems that electrical engineers are not naturally athletically-minded! However, a look back at the history of sporting events shows that technology and sport can be mutually beneficial to one another, particularly in televising those sporting events.

The first Olympic games to be filmed and broadcast were the 1948 games, held in London. The first Games to be held since the 1936 Olympics hosted by Berlin, it was popularly known as the ‘Austerity Games’, due to post-war rationing still being in place. Despite this, the decision was made to make these Games the first to be properly televised by the BBC. This decision owed much to the work of an electronics engineer, Sir Isaac Shoenberg.

Shoenberg, a Russian émigré, began working for the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company shortly after arriving in London in 1914. Following work for the Columbia Gramophone Company he became the head of research and patents at Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) in 1931.

Here, Shoenberg led the EMI research team into making significant advances in the development of television, including creating the first electronic television camera, known as the ‘Emitron’. Previous television equipment, as pioneered by John Logie Baird, had been largely mechanical in nature, and had produced pictures of relatively low definition. The Emitron camera, however, could create pictures of much greater quality. As such it was adopted by the BBC as their official camera in 1936 and used in the major televised events of the 1930s such as the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

1948 London Olympics

The television service was unfortunately closed down for the duration of the Second World War, but resumed itself in 1946, just in time for the hosting of the Olympics by London in 1948. During the war, Shoenberg and his team at EMI had been working on improving television cameras and so, by the 1940s, televising equipment had been so much improved that broadcasting of the Olympics was deemed feasible. The BBC thus paid £1000 for the rights to broadcast and predicted that ‘the broadcasting and televising of the London Olympiad will be the biggest operation of its kind that the BBC had ever undertaken’. This was rightly predicted: though there were still only a limited number of television receivers in London that were able to pick-up broadcasts, the BBC succeeded in broadcasting over 60 hours of coverage from the events that took place in Wembley Stadium, using the Emitron cameras that Shoenberg’s team had developed during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Shoenberg continued to make contributions to the development of television, and in 1954 he was awarded the Faraday Medal by the Institution of Electrical Engineers for his services to television and the communication industry. He was elected a director of EMI in 1955 and awarded a knighthood in 1962.

The IET holds historical material related to Sir Isaac Shoenberg within its Archives collections, including personal documents and correspondence, photographs, and papers relating to the history of television. To find out more, search the IET Archives’ online catalogue at http://archives.theiet.org/search.aspx or contact us at archives@theiet.org

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