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On the eve of WWI, when the science of radio was perhaps less than twenty years old, the ether crackled with countless radio signals and the monotonous clatter of Morse code. During WWI technology developed apace as portable equipment was invented for ground to air and even air to air communication. It was the dawn of a new communications era.

Following the war, the first broadcasts were, in the great tradition of radio, complete accidents. Two senior Marconi engineers, H.J. Round and W.T. Ditcham, who ran the high power experimental station at the Marconi Works in Chelmsford first brought entertainment to the airwaves. From January to March 1920 their transmitter tests soon became far more than speech ‘telephony’ experiments, their regular evenings of music and news became true firsts in the history of radio.

During these impromptu and experimental concerts Miss Winfred Sayer, a local girl who sang with the amateur group Freddy and the Funnions, became the first lady to sing on British radio during March 1920. After the first experimental broadcasts the Daily Mail Newspaper approached Marconi's to fund a first professional 'wire-less' concert. They hired the world-famous opera singer Dame Nellie Melba.

On the evening of her concert, June 15th 1920, she was shown the huge 450 ft. twin masts towering over the factory and the town, and it was explained to her that from the top her voice would be heard throughout the world. Her answer is now radio folklore, “Young Man, if you think I’m going to climb up there you are very much mistaken”.

Dame Nellie sang and was heard throughout Europe, and her historic concert was quickly followed by summer concerts from world famous artistes Lauritz Melchior and Dame Clara Butt. Nothing like it had been heard before - it was a new type of entertainment in a new world – and what happened next was to change the world. Today we can hardly imagine the sense of amazement as for the first time live words and music came from the air, directly into people’s front rooms.

Alongside these earliest days of broadcasting an entire new industry was born. Its technology developed easily out of what previously had been the cutting-edge technologies of the telephone and telegraph industries and the heavy electrical equipment companies. The development of many new inventions would follow, from gramophones to radio transmitters, receivers, televisions, radar, and eventually, digital computers.

For the first time in perhaps a thousand years, the radio would replace the fireplace as the focus of family life. In the days before television and the internet dominated family entertainment, it was the wireless set, with its warm wooden cabinet, numerous knobs and glowing dials which provided the focus for countless cosy evenings at home.

Today, as we fast approach the centenary of the Birth of British Broadcasting it is perhaps a little humbling to think that our entire modern age of media, broadcasting and even the internet started in a temporary concert studio. In reality it was really nothing more than a hastily converted packing shed, in the middle of the New Street Marconi Works.

From radio and these first broadcasts, during the 20th Century, the modern electronics industry emerged. Today it is one of our largest global industries. As technology improved, radios would become smaller and cheaper and contemporary society now uses a vast array of electronic devices built in automated or semi-automated factories operated by the same industry.

The pace was incredible, just look at your mobile phone, no longer just a telephone, is a computer and camera…and so much more. All this started in Chelmsford……in 1920……one hundred years ago.

From Marconi to Melba –
The Centenary of First British Radio Broadcasts
RRP £18.95

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