Technology and Sport: Sir Isaac Shoenberg and the 1948 Olympic Games

Bringing the Olympics to the homes of the masses

From the earliest days of organised sporting events, technology and sport have gone hand-in-hand together. From developing better equipment to checking on the participants’ health, different forms of technology have enhanced the way people play and enjoy competitive sport. 

One significant way in which technology has made an impact on how people appreciate sporting events was the development and use of television equipment to film and broadcast the 1948 Olympic Games.

Held in London, the 1948 Olympics were the first since the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. Despite being known as the ‘Austerity Games’ due to post-war rationing, the London Olympics were the first to be properly televised by the BBC. This development owed much to an electronics engineer, Sir Isaac Shoenberg.

  Sir Isaac Shoenberg (biography)

Sir Isaac Shoenberg: image courtesy of Robert Alexander Shoenberg had been born in Russia but had emigrated to London at the start of the First World War. After working for the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company and the Columbia Gramophone Company, he became head of Research and Patents at Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) in 1931.  

Under his direction, the EMI Research team made some 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.

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. 

Emitrom camera used at the 1948 Olympics: image courtesy of VTOldboys.com 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 Issac 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 or contact us at archives@theiet.org or 020 7344 8407.


The image of Sir Isaac Shoenberg supplied courtesy of Robert Alexander

The image of the Emitron camera used at the 1948 Olympics supplied courtesy of VTOldboys.com