John Logie Baird invented television. This is a common misconception as the ideas reach much further back and the successful system of television in Britain owed nothing to him. If not him; who was responsible? The answer is a name few have ever heard – Isaac Shoenberg. He created, inspired and led the brilliant Marconi-EMI team that did produce the first real high definition broadcast television system in the world.
Growing up as a Jew in Pinsk on the endless plains of Eastern Europe, he was educated and worked within the restraints and chaos of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dodging strikes, pogroms and revolution he married and started a family while still a student, and despite parental opposition. Taking a chance he joined another young man, Semyon Aisenstein, in building some of the first wireless telegraph stations in Russia. This was very successful and their enterprise became a large organisation before being taken over by the Marconi Company.
Then in 1914 he gave up his good job and brought his young family to London so that he could undertake further study. But as the First World War broke out, he soon had to seek employment and worked his way up from a junior patent clerk to a joint general manager of the Marconi Company in ten years.
It was a move to the Columbia record company that began his opportunities to make major advances in electrical sound recording. With the formation of EMI he became director of research and then went on to lead the team to develop television.
With his rare combination of technical ability matched with leadership, he built up what was acknowledged as the finest electronics research and design team in the country. He recruited the best talent such as Alan Blumlein, often described as a genius, who went on to invent stereo recording.
They then turned to developing television from scratch. No one had produced a satisfactory broadcast system before, and hence they had to invent everything. This sort of endeavour never goes smoothly, but he always had confidence that they would eventually succeed. In particular they produced the vital electronic ‘Emitron’ camera which made a true electronic system possible. Baird had no answer to this and lost the competition.
With the coming of the next war he guided his team to radar and made major contributions to airborne interceptors for night fighting. The next step was to produce the famous H2S navigation aid, which saved the lives of many bomber crews, but cost those of three of his team. As if that wasn’t enough, another version of this radar was used to detect enemy submarines, and made a major contribution in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Only late in life were his contributions to sound recording and television recognised, culminating in awards and a knighthood. Despite his achievements, and being described as an engineer-scientist with a dash of the visionary, there is no full length biography of him. Pinsk to the Palace: Sir Isaac Shoenberg and the birth of Television is an attempt to fill that gap and make his name better known.
On the second of November 1936 in Alexandra Palace, set high on its hill in north London, there was a grand opening ceremony. It was not for the palace itself, though part of it had been refurbished, but the inauguration of the first real broadcast television service. A late change to the intended schedule meant that unusually the actual introduction was performed twice. As there were two competing systems, it was transmitted first on one and then the other.
There were some forty or so invited guests in the audience; representatives of the two companies that provided the equipment, together with the BBC and the great and the good who had been involved with the project. They sat to listen to the rather pompous speeches from the Chairman of the BBC, Mr Norman, the Postmaster General, Major Tryon, and the chairman of the television committee, Lord Selsdon.
The speeches didn’t improve from being repeated.
Among the guests was a small man with abundant swept back hair and a scrubby moustache. Shrewd eyes peered out through rimless glasses, giving a steely look. This however could easily soften into a benign smile. He was not someone that the casual observer would notice, and that was the way he liked it as he avoided publicity.
Usually in his hand, though not today, was a cigarette, as he was a heavy smoker.
His name was Isaac Shoenberg. This was not one that was known widely, but those present knew exactly who he was. What they also knew was that, if it hadn’t been for him, this ceremony would have been unlikely to be taking place. It was extraordinary that someone whose background lay on the plains of eastern Europe should have achieved so much in his adopted country. But then again, few people outside those present knew that.
He had led the Marconi-EMI team that produced one of the systems and without his abilities that would not have happened. As only a short time was to tell, this was much the superior system. The competition was from the Baird Company, and John Logie Baird was the name everyone knew, but he had hung on to an idea of mechanical television far too long. As Isaac Shoenberg’s team pushed up the performance to a point where it gave true entertainment value, Baird’s tried to follow, pushing the technique to its limit. However when they got into the studio there was no real competition in the cameras, the Baird Company had not got a satisfactory solution.
Isaac Shoenberg’s achievement began with his ability to convince the management of a company, whose mainstay record business was suffering a serious decline, to invest heavily in developing a complete television system right from the novel electronic camera, through the transmitters, to the receivers for use in viewers’ homes.
It was an enormous undertaking into completely uncharted waters.
His next task was to break the problem down into manageable pieces and choose the right people from his team to tackle them. As time progressed it was clear where these teams needed strengthening and he carefully recruited talented people with the right skills to fill the gaps. It is reckoned that at the height of the effort the teams had grown to 114 people. There were 32 with degrees of whom nine had doctorates, which were quite rare in the 1930s. But it wasn’t just the highly talented people; they were backed up with people of a whole range of skills, everything from technicians to glass blowers.
This large workforce had to be properly directed so that, though they were broken down into groups, they worked with each other where their tasks dovetailed. It is a subtle art to guide and motivate research and development particularly when the going gets tough. This had to be mostly by the leaders of the various teams, but he had chosen these with great care.
His main task was to provide the overall direction and stimulus to ensure that the work proceeded at the best possible pace; again a delicate balance between getting it done quickly, but slowly enough to be thorough. This required setting the environment, the tone, or in modern parlance the culture of the whole department. It was a subtle balance of pressure and encouragement; so much so that the members of the team became largely self motivated. They knew that he would back them, and provide the resources to get the job done.
He would grill the senior members to ensure that they had thought things through completely, but it also meant that he was fully up to speed with all the technical issues. He had to be a good engineer himself to understand it all. This was essential when it came to making the major decisions, on direction or specification.
This was a rare combination of technical ability matched with leadership. A hard skill combined with a soft one is rarely found in the same person, and this was what made him so unusual. In addition he had iron nerves. He could take large calculated risks and not panic when at first not everything went right. In his life he took a number of what appeared to be very courageous jumps, but they had always been very carefully thought through beforehand.
Such skills do not appear fully formed; they have to grow through experience. In his life he had a number of lucky breaks, though they often didn’t seem so at the time. His father, being of the Russian merchant class, meant that he had the resources to support his son through the school system, and instead of the classically based Gymnasium it was to be the technically biased Real School. He was also prepared to support him on to university. Then again it wasn’t an ordinary university but a new Polytechnical Institute.
He had been keen to study mathematics, but the courses available forced him into engineering. That gave him the background to join another young man in building the first wireless systems in Russia. This was a hard but very useful experience to give him a thorough technical grounding, and achieve that ‘feel’ that makes a good engineer.
Then came another of those calculated risks. He gave it all up to bring his family to England to study, researching wireless systems, but with courses on mathematics on the side. With the first world war intervening the money ran out and he took what seemed a lowly job handling patents. This was a lucky break because he was to become an expert in the subject and it played an important role in his future work.
His abilities were such that within a decade he was a joint general manager of the company. In a sense this was all his apprenticeship because he now joined a record company and began the role that so suited him of directing technical teams. First this was with the recording of sound and then the development of television.
However, though in a sense the launch at Alexandra Palace was the high point, there was still much to be done to improve the equipment, and this took up the rest of the 1930s and even then it wasn’t finished. In the second world war, the magnificent design team that he had built up went on to make an enormous contribution to the development of radar. This was a natural extension as television and radar have much in common.
In the post war world they were still improving things, but he began to step back as he was already beyond the normal retirement age. It was a time of reward; awards, a directorship of the company and a knighthood. Such men do not retire they carry on contributing the wisdom they have built up until they are called away.
To research the life of a man who shunned publicity, presents many challenges. The information that exists is thin, and much of what has been published contains discrepancies, and often things that are just plain wrong. For example, a common error is that he was naturalised as a British citizen in 1919. A quick look at the actual records shows this to have taken place in October 1922. Other matters are less easy to decide which version is right.
Also there is a curious dearth of archive material. In the Marconi archives there is material on most of the senior people in the company. However, despite him being head of patents for about six years and joint general manager for a further three, no file has been found. The only one is for his first few years in the company and appears to be one kept by the Chief Engineer who employed him.
He is curiously absent from most places where one would expect to find information. This is compounded by the confusion with Arnold Schoenberg whose name is sometimes rendered without the ‘c’ and the search systems prefer to give you him rather than Isaac. If it hadn’t been for the documents and letters that have been kept by the family, the time in Russia would have been impossible to reconstruct.
Perhaps this dearth of information is why, despite some attempts, there appears to be no biography of him. This then is an attempt to fill that gap. From the information that does exist it is possible to ‘join the dots’ and get a reasonable picture of the man, his life and achievements. This is the result of that endeavour.