This is an archived website which has not been updated since 2002.
Some information may be inaccurate or out of date.

Articles by Donald Wray

Here are three articles by Donald Wray - Pictures of the Outer World, Taking Television to the Masses and Telstar and After.

Donald led a long and distinguished career in the Post Office and British Telecom. Dollis Hill is the name of the GPO's old research station in north-west London, the predecessor of its present establishment at Martlesham Heath near Ipswich.


One of the first jobs I had as a design engineer at Dollis Hill was to devise equipment for using ordinary telephone lines for television outside broadcasts. From this was born the portable equaliser-amplifier: Tom Kilvington and I were the joint patentees. I later designed gear for TV transmission over coaxial cable and microwave links and even attempted (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to record TV programmes electrostatically on a rotating glass disc long before the Ampex tape machine came along.

For several years I spent my days in the laboratory working on equipment design and my evenings at the sites of outside broadcasts trying to make the wretched stuff work under live conditions. This doubly-devoted life had its compensations: I had privileged spectator positions at Test matches, Wimbledon, the Boat Race, Wembley Stadium spectaculars, the 1948 Olympic Games and much more.

The Olympic Games were particularly memorable. Ian Orr-Ewing was the BBC producer on site and I - a horny-handed engineer - was amazed at the way these superior artistic persons swore and blasphemed at their staff and colleagues. I was also surprised to find that the sports commentators had forecast most of the winners of the field events and so were. able to practice their commentaries in advance of the games with the cameras panning along empty tracks. But everyone made one mistake. It was widely believed that Prince Philip himself would run into the stadium carrying the Olympic torch and a great deal of purple prose had to be scrapped when that Greek hero arrived in a more mundane fashion.

Our specially-provided coaxial cable ran from the stadium control room along the walls of the Royal Tunnel into the Wembley street outside and thence via Willesden to Museum Exchange and. Broadcasting House. All went well until (of course) the very morning of the opening ceremonies when our cable went faulty. Our test equipment indicated that there was a bad joint in the Royal Tunnel. I knew its location and galloped off to put it right - only to find that the whole of the inside of the tunnel had been covered in magnificent purple velvet. There was no time for delicacy. I fumbled along the walls until I found the joint and cut a large flap in the velvet with my pen-knife. I frantically replaced the screw connections and all was well again. I do hope their Majesties were not too distressed to see that jagged flap in the royal purple when they made their stately entrance.

Our first Boat Race broadcast also had its share of incidents. We had persuaded one elderly lady to release her phone line from her peaceful riverside home so that we could equalise it for TV transmission but she became pretty upset when the BBC filled her garden with bulky cameras, noisy generators and rumbustious personnel. Came the day of the Boat Race and she refused to let us in. Fortunately her daughter lived nearby and she, by dint of screaming through the letter-box, was able to get her mother to relent on condition that henceforth the BBC crews would be silent as mice.

The control point for the Boat Race network was in what was then called Museum Exchange (now engulfed in Telecom Tower) where we had put up a rack of terminal and test equipment and some TV monitors in a corner of the operator switch room.

The cox of one of the crews was a certain Anthony Armstrong-Jones who, even then, had acquired a certain fame. As the preparation for the race got under way the operators crowded around the monitors (TV was still something of a novelty in those days). In a pause between the "Aaah!" and "Ooooh!" noises I loftily remarked that I supposed you girls were turned on by these beefy fellows with their strapping shoulders and bulging biceps. "Oh, no!" said one girl indignantly, "I'm not interested in that sort of thing at all." "Oh, I see," said I without thought, "I suppose you're much keener on their cox."

To this day I blush at the memory of that unfortunate choice of words.

As television spread across the country so, figuratively speaking, did I, working on a variety of links stretching from the Isle of Wight to Glasgow. These were all fully-engineered microwave radio or coaxial cable links and took many months to install and commission. But when we were suddenly faced with the requirement to bring television to Belfast in time for the Coronation, there was no time to do the job properly Our link consisted of an inverted-V antenna and a receiver on top of Black Mountain, near Belfast, picking up the broadcast signal from the Scottish transmitter at Kirk o' Shotts about 130 miles away. The receiver was connected via a cable running down the mountain-side to a transportable BBC transmitter. Much of our receiving equipment had to be carried by the local PO engineers in back-packs up the mountain to our tiny hut on the crest.

It was not difficult to distinguish between the Loyalist and Republican areas of Belfast during the Coronation celebrations. The streets of the former were so thickly hung with bunting that sunlight could scarcely break through the lack of flags in the later was so absolute as to seem insolent. At night the Lambeg drums rolled and growled until the knuckles of the drummers were streaming with blood.

I returned home a few days before the Coronation confident that the installation was working nicely, only to be told there were rumours that the IRA intended to blow it up. I was ordered back again accompanied by a spare set of equipment so that, with the last breath of my mangled remains, I would be able to repair whatsoever had been damaged. By now high-octane Irishism was setting in. The RUC had introduced a pass-card system and I, the only person with spare equipment and an intimate knowledge of the installation, was debarred entry because I didn't have a card. It took a day to sort that one out. I then found that our coaxial cable down the mountainside from our hilltop receiver to the BBC transmitter, which had been neatly buried and grassed over, was being patrolled by the RUC day and night by stolid constables laden with guns, spotlights and walkie-talkies. Even a blind IRA man could have plotted the course of our cable by listening to the path of the rich Irish curses. It took all my tact to convince the RUG that our little engineering enterprise would be far safer without the benefit of their protection. It's not the sort of message a policeman likes to hear.

After the Coronation came the celebrations. The Belfast pubs were supposed to close quite early and not open at all on Sundays. How did it happen, then, that one came across so many cheerful prostrate citizens dotted through the streets and far out into the country; even on Sundays? The answer was: club membership. To join a club one went along a street where there were many brown wooden doors punctured by wooden hatches. One would rap on the door and the hatch would fly open. My first essay was unsuccessful. The hatch opened and a voice said: "Are you an ex-serviceman?" I thought briefly about the terrifying consequences of giving the wrong answer to this question and decided the most prudent response was "No!" The hatch shut with a conclusive bang. We tried again a few doors along the street. This time the voice through the hatch asked: "What are you?" "An engineer" I replied. And I was in and able to study at first hand how a skilled barman cuts off the top of a Guiness with a scapula.

Everyone who was involved in those pioneering days has a story to tell about the horrors and delights of live television.

Let me conclude this section by telling you mine. I was in an Alexandra Palace control room looking down on a small studio where a superior lady was teaching the plebs how to cook. She extracted a large object from the oven and laid it on the table.

She beamed at the camera: "I 'm now going to lift off this basin and you will see a beautiful firm and succulent pudding." She slowly lifted the basin and a hint of anxiety touched her noble features. She continued to lift even more hesitantly but it was no good: the pudding flowed out from under and distributed itself over the plate in an even layer of gunge. The producer in his eyrie yelped with horror. But our lady, the cook, with true British pluck, was not dispirited. She smiled bravely and said "Well, even the best-laid plans sometimes go a little awry I am now going to show you how to make a light sponge. Take a cake tin 6 inches by 4 inches...."

The producer turned to his girl assistant. "Quick!" he screamed. "Run down to Lyons and buy a cake 6 inches by 4 inches..."

Innocent days.


When I was made project engineer of the Goonhilly satellite earth station in 1961, the site on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall had already been chosen, and so had the consulting engineer for the design and construction of the giant steerable aerial, H C Husband & Co. So I can take neither credit nor blame for either of these fundamental decisions.

The station was to be built to communicate with Telstar, the first of the active communications satellites. (There had been earlier experiments with Echo, a giant balloon, and a satellite carrying a tape recorder which recorded messages as it flew over one half of the world and disgorged them as it whizzed round the other side. but these were both dead ends). Telstar - and, later, Relay - was to be launched into an inclined elliptical orbit and so there would only be a few periods each day r lasting from a few minutes up to three-quarters of an hour when it could be contacted by radio from both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously.

To maximise these periods of mutual visibility, the American station was built as far east as possible at a place called Andover in the state of Maine: the French station was in Pleumeur Bodou in Britanny and the British station was as far west as possible, on the Lizard Peninsular.

There were two fascinating aspects about the chosen site: the first was that it was the burial place of about a dozen Celtic dignitaries, each in a foetal position in his own barrow: and the second was that it was close to where Marconi had set up his first transatlantic radio station back in 1901, having chosen that location for the very same reason that we had, namely to reduce the radio path to a minimum.

We had but one year, almost to the day, to design and construct the station before the launch of Telstar. Engineers from the City Branches and from Dollis Hill spent weeks at a time in Cornwall working all hours of the day as the control building and the aerial took shape. Besides the Post office People there were transmitter experts from AEI and Marconi, computer boffins from Elliot Bros., control experts from Loughborough Technical College, construction engineers from John Brown's and of course, the team from H C Husband's. "Tom" Husband was a frequent visitor to the site and took an active and detailed interest in the construction of the huge paraboloidal dish aerial. His proud boast was that it was so perfectly balanced that, in the absence of wind, the 900-ton dish could be tilted and rotated by the power from a 12-volt battery.

Unfortunately, absence of wind is so rare on that bleak plateau that this claim remained untested. Husband was a remarkable man whose unorthodox methods could infuriate a conventional engineer. Capable of sophisticated analyses when the occasion demanded, he would mingle calculations and seat-of-the-pants intuition in arriving at a design concept.

He may well be right, one wondered, but how does one know? When the first Goonhilly aerial was modified in 1983 to work to Early Bird, an extra reflecting surface was built on top of the original one. Tom Husband, by then in his mid-70s, would climb up between the two skins a hundred or so feet above the ground, and minutely examine his creation for any signs of stress or corrosion.

Tom was very vain and fancied himself as the latter-day Brunel. As a registered consulting engineer he could not advertise his services overtly so he sought to gain publicity in any other way he could. This could range from insisting, perfectly legitimately, that he should receive full credit for the aerial design in all photographs and articles, to rather vulgar grandiose gestures such as ordering double brandies for everyone in a train carriage.

As the date of Telstar's launch grew ever nearer the construction and radio engineering teams' efforts grew increasingly hectic. There was the usual crop of hindrances and irritants. At one point the Post Office Engineering Union called a national strike over wage scales. I called the local workforce together and explained that if they withdrew their collaboration at this stage our completion date would be very publicly jeopardised. They seemed puzzled. "Strike?" said one, "Strike? That's for England, not Cornwall!" I was never sure whether this was a display of genuine Cornish nationalism or whether they, like everyone else on the project, was so excited that to do other than work flat out was unthinkable.

The media became excited, too. This, after all, promised to be the first live television transmission across the Atlantic, an event to rank against Marconi's radio bleeps more than half a century before. Elaborate arrangements were made to convey the television pictures back to London where they could be broadcast by the BBC and ITV.

Raymond Baxter and Ian Trethowan arrived on site to act as the commentators for BBC and ITV respectively. Raymond, besides being a well-known broadcaster on science and technology, was a successful rally-driver. I once made the mistake of accepting a lift from him in his souped-up Westminster and arrived at our hotel white and shaking after he had driven at what seemed to me) suicidal speed through the narrow twisting Cornish lanes.

Ian Trethowan, a much less extrovert character, was later to become Baxter's boss when he moved over to the BBC and became Director General. He would sit quietly in the hotel in the evenings, blissfully basking in the adulation of his young lady assistants.

The pioneers had their favourite hotels. Some favoured the Goverack where the bedrooms are named after satellites; but I mostly patronised the Poldhu, managed by the redoubtable Mrs Shoosmith. There is a monument in the grounds of that hotel to mark the spot where Marconi had his original cabin, and there are some splendid photographs in the foyer showing George V arriving in his stiffly upright Rolls-Royce to visit Signor Marconi at his historic work.

The Poldhu was very obliging at providing us with cold meals right through the night. I remember tucking into a cold chicken salad at about 3 a.m. on one occasion and remarking to my colleagues that I bet Marconi never had it so good as this. "Oh, yes he did, sir!" said old William, the waiter, "Because I used to serve him". (This is not quite so remarkable as it first seems. Marconi worked there on and off, for along time after 1901).

The tiny signal received from the satellite was to be amplified by a maser housed in a cabin tucked up high behind the aerial reflector. (I imagine that this was one of the few commercial applications for this curious device). The maser had to be immersed in liquid helium which in turn was in a jacket of liquid nitrogen, and the country folk travelling via Helston station would goggle in amazement to see drums of these exotic fluids being unloaded from the train and carted away by weird technicians.

Liquid nitrogen was the basis of one of the exhibits when a party of schoolboys visited for a Goonhilly open day. The trick was to drop grapes into the liquid whereupon they immediately became solid and could be shattered like glass. One lovely lad dunked his tie into the nitrogen, it emerged frozen stiff sticking out at 90 degrees to his chest. When he caught up with his class-mates they roared at the sight of his rampant neckwear. One gave it a smart tap and it broke off at the bend. I could just imagine him going home and saying "Mum! I've broken my tie!"

I returned home in mid-June 1962 to replenish my clothes and family life. I had been but a few days when the word came that Telstar was about to be launched. It was a summery sunny Sunday and the roads to the West Country were crammed with holiday-makers as I roared along in my great Armstrong-Siddeley. As I approached Taunton one car in a long line of traffic braked suddenly and about seven cars in a row smashed into the car in front. I was about number four in the sequences my rear bumper was slightly damaged but the radiator grille was pressed hard against the fan.

Clearly this was a frequent occurrence in this stretch of road because within a few minutes the doors of a row of terraced houses opened almost in unison and ladies appeared with trays of tea and biscuits. Mugs in hand, the distraught drivers settled down into multi-way arguments in which they each contested they wouldn't have struck the one in front had they not been smashed into from behind. After a life-enhancing interview with the police I arranged for my car to be towed to a garage where the radiator grill was pulled out and jammed into position by a few steel nuts. I found that the car was drivable but whenever my speed exceeded 30 mph the fan blades would strike the fins of the grille with a noise like a machine-gun. I continued my journey at a snail's pace.

By mid-evening I felt that I needed a stimulant and stopped at a country pub for a brandy. The place fell silent as soon as I entered and maintained this atmosphere of malignant stillness until I hurriedly left. As I drove very slowly over Bodmin Moor well after midnight I could imagine dinosaurs and brontosauri trudging through the primeval sedge into my headlights. I arrived at the hotel around 4 a.m. and crawled into the little room that was always saved for me. When I glanced in the mirror I could see why I had caused so much unease in the pub; my face was covered with dry blood.

The next day Raymond Baxter told me that the Americans and French were plotting to do the dirty on the Brits. I couldn't believe it - our friends in AT&T? It was unthinkable! Unthinkable or not, said Raymond, he was certain that something would happen that would enable the French to get a good reception from Telstar but would leave Goonhilly in the dark.

And he was right. The news came that Telstar was safely launched and we prepared to track its progress over the Atlantic. Raymond Baxter and Ian Trethowan sat side by slide on high stools behind a glass screen looking down on the control panel and a line of TV monitors. They had only one microphone between them but with great professional skill they passed it backward and forward between them whilst maintaining an unbroken flow of commentary. Back in London Richard Dimbleby was setting the scene for viewers.

And then, when Telstar was firmly in the criss-crossed beams of the Andover and Goonhilly aerials, there came the first flashing pictures. But they were very feeble and practically unusable. News came over the control line that the French were receiving very good pictures. The ITV team had brought a case of champagne to celebrate the first transatlantic TV picture. We didn't open it.

Richard Dimbleby was busy assuring viewers that we were doing all we can to put things right. For years afterward the public thought that Goonhilly, Telstar and the whole shebang belonged to the BBC.

The next day the mystery was solved. It all depended on how one defined right-handed and left-handed polarisation. The Americans had adopted one definition and we had taken another. But how was it that the French had got it right? Well, Pleumeur Bodou was an exact replica of the American station at Andover, Maine. We shifted a component in the feeder of our aerial through 180"and waited for nightfall and the next clutch of mutually visible Telstar orbits.

Meanwhile the Press was having great fun at our discomfiture. The Guardian said it wasn't surprised that Goonhilly had failed; after all, it was British design and was driven by bicycle chains. My consolation - and a sweet consolation it was - came from physically ejecting two Express reporters off the premises.

On the second night we had splendid pictures. The broadcasters were delighted. Richard Dimbleby implied he had repaired the fault. The Post Office people were jubilant and drank all the champagne. Within a few days we were the first to conduct some colour TV tests and simulate multi-channel telephony. Communicating with Telstar became almost routine.

After a year in which we continued tests through two Telstar and two Relay satellites it became obvious that a satellite which bridged the Atlantic for only a few periods each day-and then for only a few tens of minutes - was of little use for a commercial service. There were two possible solutions: either to have a succession of satellites in elliptical orbits so that there was always one in mutual contact; or to have one satellite which appeared to hover over the earth's surface. The first solution seemed messy and expensive, and the second seemed technically impossible. At least it seemed impossible to practically everyone except Harold Rosen of the Hughes Aircraft Company whose design of the first geostationary satellite (known first as HS303 and then ‘Early Bird’) was ready by 1965.

Goonhilly was practically re-gutted to prepare for Early Bird and the shape of the aerial was drastically remodelled. Once again we had to fight against time to be ready for a new satellite launch date: and once again we were fortunate. But this time there was no dream, no interest by the press or the broadcasters. To them it was all old hat; to us it was the start of a new era.

When I recall the derision heaped upon Goonhilly's first aerial by the Guardian and other members of the fourth estate I take comfort from the knowledge that our old open-parabolic chain-driven aerial is still in active daily service whereas the radome-covered tenfold-more-expensive horn antennas at Andover and Plumeur Bodou were retired long ago.

Long years after the Telstar/Relay/Early Bird era, I selected the site for our second earth station at Madley, Herefordshire. We hired the village hall to tell the local people what it was all about; that it wouldn't be dangerous, wouldn't emit smoke, wouldn't prevent the vicar getting his church into a "Songs of Praise" slot and wouldn't sterilise their bulls. We showed some exciting film about Goonhilly and festooned the hall with models of satellites and large steerable aerials. I gave a little speech, I thought it had all gone rather well. I beamed at the audience and asked for questions.

"It's all very well extolling its technological virtues." said one lady, "but won't this great monstrosity be an eyesore?"

"On the contrary" I asserted "After all, Goonhilly is now a tourist attraction. People buy postcards of it."

"I can buy postcards of jumbo jets" retorted the lady, "But that doesn't mean I want to live in Heathrow!"

I decided it was time for coffee and biscuits.


Television, you will remember, was a Londoner's luxury just before the war and then afterwards when the service re-opened. There was much pressure to make it available to the whole country but the range of the VHF transmitters was limited to less than 100 miles, so numerous transmitters were required across the country before such a luxury could be offered to all.

Setting up the transmitters was a straightforward job to be solved by paying money to industry, but getting the TV program out to the transmitter was a little more difficult in those days. Transmission of such signals was a prerogative of the GPO. But, because wideband signals were not commonplace, the work of developing and installing the first links was undertaken by the radio people (WE Branch) at Dollis Hill.

The first transmitter outside London was at Birmingham. Temporarily, this was supplied with its program by a 900MHz, multi-hop link starting from the roof of Museum exchange which was conveniently near to the BBC. That link was supplied by GEC. It was soon relegated to standby status as a one inch diameter co-axial cable was equipped to carry the wideband signal. The cable had been installed between London and Birmingham before the war for experimental multi-channel telephony. Quite a lot of new ground was broken at DH in order to deliver the video signal in a satisfactory state.

After Birmingham came transmitters at Manchester, then Wenvoe to feed South Wales and the West country. The Wenvoe link was developed at DH. It used newly developed 4000 MHz techniques, many pioneered and "plumbed" at DH, but only for half of the hops. Alternate hops were at the much lower frequency of 200MHz to reduce possible problems with interference from the previous hop. This 4000 MHz technology was also used to supply the Isle of Wight transmitter which served the South coast.

To satisfy Northern Ireland was going to be a problem. The project was hurried, somewhat unsophisticated ... but it worked.

We set up a number of inverted-V antennas on Black Mountain, to the north of Belfast, to pick up the normal broadcast TV signals from Kirk o' Shotts, more than a hundred miles away.

A sensitive receiver extracted the TV signal which modulated a coaxial line system running down the mountainside to a mobile TV transmitter.

Surviving photographs show the tractor - our only means of ferrying equipment to the mountain-top - and the DH team. The interior of our luxurious equipment room - a transportable battery hut - can be seen in a second photograph. At a pinch it could hold two people and about four racks of equipment.

Back to History index