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THE 2MT STORY       

With grateful thanks to author Tim Wander for permission to provide this abridged version of text from his publications -

'2MT Writtle - The Birth of British Broadcasting' 

'From Marconi to Melba - The Centenary of the First British Radio Broadcasts'             Further details



When we look at the history of the UK's first regular, licenced, entertainment broadcast service, 2MT, and look at why 2MT was established, we need to step back a few years before their first transmissions in 1922.


In late December 1919 the Marconi Company installed and began testing a 6kW telephony transmitter at its main Chelmsford New Street factory. Operating under an experimental Post Office transmission license, and using the radio callsign MZX, its sole purpose was to investigate the properties and problems associated with long distance speech transmission.


The new Chelmsford transmitter fed into a huge 'T' shaped wire aerial that was suspended between two massive 450ft high masts, set 750 ft apart, known locally as the 'drainpipes'. The huge cast iron tubes dominated the Company's New Street works and the town.


The content of the first Chelmsford transmissions left much to be desired, with Marconi engineers Bill Ditcham and Henry Round simply following the company prescribed format for telephony transmission. But weeks of continually repeating railway station names from Bradshaw's train timetable, broken only by the occasional time check, became boring, and the Marconi engineers decided to do something totally different.


On the 15th January 1920 they started the first ever true 'broadcasts' in Britain by transmitting a programme of speech and gramophone music, including what was to become Ditcham's regular news service.


This all could have gone unnoticed, but 214 appreciative reports soon arrived from amateurs and ships operators alike who had listened in. The radio amateurs were enraptured to finally hear words and music on their radio sets, and they reported this in glowing terms to the Marconi Company. The Chelmsford station had been heard from Norway to Portugal, with the greatest reported distance being 1,450 miles. The engineering team realised they had stumbled on something quite extraordinary and it was time to become more ambitious. The 6kW transmitter was quickly replaced with one rated at 15kW.


Now for a brief period from 23rd February until the 6th March 1920 their continuing tests became a regular, scheduled series of 30 minute broadcast radio programmes. These were aired twice daily at 11am and 8pm and were designed from the outset to be a regular wireless telephony news service which would take up to 15 minutes, leaving time for three or four short musical items.


Despite the enthusiasm generated by the Chelmsford radio 'events', the Marconi Company still believed at this time that the future of wireless telephony lay solely with commercial speech transmission and not entertainment. However, Ditcham and Round were given a free hand to continue.


Additional entertainment was soon arranged, with regular programmes now transmitted to the nation during the early summer of 1920 consisting of readings from newspapers, gramophone records, and for the first time live musical performances from a young local lady Miss Winifred Sayer.

This new concept of speech and music crackling over the airwaves into the front rooms of ordinary people was poised to revolutionise the world of entertainment, and was enthusiastically greeted by radio amateurs and newspapers throughout Europe. The transmissions from Chelmsford, and from station FL in Paris, were joined by the new Dutch broadcast station PCGG, which started broadcasting special concerts for English listeners on April 29th 1920.


It appeared to all that the future of broadcasting looked very bright indeed, and Ditcham and Round's lively series of concerts and news programmes transmitted from the Marconi New Street works had also not gone unnoticed by the established print media. It was a newspaper that started the next phase of the story, brought about by the proprietor of the Daily Mail newspaper group, Lord Northcliffe, and he now commissioned the first radio broadcast by a recognised professional artiste of international standing, choosing none other than the famous Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba.


On 15th June 1920, Dame Nellie Melba travelled to the Marconi factory works in New Street Chelmsford, and - despite problems with cable links and transmitter valves - at shortly after 7pm went on to perform seven songs over the MZX transmitter. The response was tremendous, with hundreds of listener reports received just for reception on simple crystal sets, and for those using more sophisticated valve receivers, reception was successful across Europe and as far away as Canada and Northern Persia.


The wireless concert from station MZX Chelmsford was deemed a great success, and for a short while similar broadcasts continued with concerts from Lauritz Melchior and Dame Clara Butt. However the writing was on the wall for station MZX's 'special test' transmissions. Each experimental music programme from the Chelmsford New Street site had to operate under a special Post Office permit, and in November 1920 the Postmaster General announced that the Marconi broadcasts from the Chelmsford Works were to be suspended on the grounds of 'interference with legitimate services' and there were to be no more permits. Whilst such 'legitimate' services had been affected including the new air traffic control system at Croydon, other factors were at play with the Post Office seriously worried about its long held communications monopoloy in the British Isles.


The Marconi Company duly complied with the Postmaster General's order and MZX lapsed into silence.


However - the seeds for the future of broadcasting had been sown and the enthusiastic listeners, including many of the new radio hams, were to play a significant part in the next chapter of British radio broadcasting.





Ditcham MZX.jpg

1. Marconi New Street Works Chelmsford

    (& the 'drainpipes')

2. Bill Ditcham & the MZX transmitter

3. Winifred Sayer

4. Dame Nellie Melba

5. Dame Clara Butt

6. Lauritz Melchior concert 

Mechior concert.jpg



The Chelmsford broadcasts had focused the attention of both the press and the public on the possibilities of using wireless telephony as a means of bringing entertainment into the home. Unlike the total chaos that would soon beset the American airwaves, broadcasting in the United Kingdom was to follow an ordered and logical course, with the future now returned to the small but growing band of amateur radio enthusiasts. They were furious at the closedown of the Chelmsford station as it had been a vital reference signal operating on a precisely known wavelength and declared power.


As a small compensation for the amateurs after the earlier complete wartime ban on radio amateur communications, experimental amateur radio transmitting licences were finally granted again on 1st August 1920. Soon, more and more amateur telephony 'broadcast' stations began to appear on 1,000 metres and 180 metres, despite severe restrictions being placed upon their operation, including a maximum output power of only ten watts and operation limited to only two hours per day.


All over Britain low powered radio broadcast stations came on the air, with at least twenty in the London area transmitting speech and music. For example, Station 2UV Harlesden London produced complete 30 minute programmes, including transmission of gramophone records and also live, local talent. One radio enthusiast, Harold Walker, even had his own theme tune for his amateur station, call sign 2OM, with 'three o'clock in the morning' crackling into his listeners' headphones.


Reports on these amateur stations soon began to appear in the press, as did the professional concerts transmitted from the Hague radio station PCGG. Britain now needed its own broadcast station.


By March 1921 there were 150 amateur radio transmitting licences and 4,000 receiving licences issued in this country, with some 1,700 requests or enquiries remaining unprocessed. The amateurs thought that it was high time for action and representatives of the 63 wireless societies which had now been established, with some 3,000 members, gathered in London on 21st March 1921 for the Second Annual Conference of Affiliated Societies. The following item on the agenda was discussed after suggestions from several wireless societies:


'The possibility of regular telephone transmission from a high power station to include all matters of interest to amateurs and to be on different definite wavelengths for calibration purposes'.


The meeting also decided to form the Radio Society of Great Britain, elect officers and a committee, and resolved to ask the Post Office for a special wireless transmission service with which to test and calibrate their sets.


On 15th August 1921 it was announced that the Postmaster General had authorised transmission by the Marconi Company for 30 minutes each week of calibration signals from a new station to be established in the Chelmsford area with the call sign 2MT. However, this could not include telephony (speech), and transmissions were to consist of the name of the station and its current frequency continuously repeated, but only in Morse code.


It was a start, but the amateurs were not satisfied. They still wanted to hear speech. On 29th December 1921 the Affiliated Radio Societies presented another petition to the Post Office signed by their officers, now representing more than 3,300 members, complaining about the slow progress made in negotiations and demanding the reinstatement of telephony transmissions.


Suddenly the battle was over - and had been won. On 13th January 1922, less than a month after the petition was presented, the new Postmaster General now authorised the transmission of a 15 minute programme of speech and music, to be included within the weekly half hour calibration transmission.


The task of making it all happen, to build a transmitter and operate the station, was given to the Marconi Company's Airborne Telephony Research Department, established in anticipation of a new market in airborne telephony. This team was based in an ex-army wooden hut, parked unceremoniously on the edge of a large, partly flooded Essex field in the small village of Writtle. The hut was staffed by ex Royal Flying Corps officers who had worked on the science of airborne speech transmission for years, and who probably knew more about speech transmission than any other engineering team.


The new 'broadcasting job' landed unannounced on the desk of 'PPE' - one Captain Peter Pendleton Eckersley - on the morning of 12th February 1922.


At first it was thought that doing 'broadcasting' was just another job from head office, that would probably get in the way of the proper work. It was an inauspicious beginning, but with 'PPE' at the helm this small acorn would soon grow.


The station callsign was simply 2MT, and the 2MT Writtle station was to become the birthplace of broadcasting in Britain. The young engineers in their wooden hut were to write the next chapter in the history of British radio.

2MT b.jpg

1. The Writtle ex-army wooden hut                         


2. The Marconi Company's Airborne Telephony Research Team be continued...

2MTPeter Eckersley
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