Five go to Amsterdam

By Trevor Brown.

Trevor recalls the time that we took a 2″ Quadruplex VTR and a Marconi MkVII camera to the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam.

This article was first published in CQ-DATV issue 91 which is available in various formats from the website.

In CQ-DATV 85 Jeffrey Borinsky said “Television is far too easy. Anyone with a smartphone can shoot footage of high technical quality and send it, live or recorded, anywhere in the world”.

Jeffrey explained the work of the newly formed BECG (Broadcast Engineering Conservation Group): “We now have a professional home for everybody interested in conserving broadcast equipment. Before we formed this group, broadcast equipment conservation was still happening just we were a little less organised and perhaps smaller in numbers and certainly less informed of each other’s work. Now our numbers, presence, and the work we do grows every month, so does our collection of broadcast television equipment”.

Back in 1997, Paul Marshall had the opportunity to put on a historic engineering exhibit at IBC (International Broadcast Convention). This takes place at the RAI centre in Amsterdam every September. The exhibition started in London, then moved to Brighton, using most of the hotels along the seafront for exhibition space to show all the latest broadcast equipment. It was held every two years as there was another exhibition held in Montreux on alternate years. IBC grew and ran out of space, it moved to the Netherlands, it continued expanding, became yearly and the Montreux exhibition ceased.

Photo of RAI Centre
The RAI Centre, Amsterdam. Photo: Author.

The exhibition attracts about 50,000 visitors and runs for about 5 days, with a static exhibition that takes more than two days to do justice to a visit, and that is excluding the lecture programme which runs alongside. There is no other way to say it than to describe it as Europe’s premium broadcast TV equipment show, rivalled only by NAB which is in April and in Las Vegas. Fortunately, the world is big enough for both events and is helped by IBC being held in September.

Paul secured funding from IBC and put a team together to build and man a display. We were probably the only team to build, man, and disassemble our own stand. The likes of Sony would have a rig team, a de-rig team of techies, a sales team to man the stand when the exhibition is open to the public, and an equipment haulage contractor to get all the kit there and back.

Group photograph.
Some of the team. L-R: Grant Dixon, Jill and Paul Marshall, Pauline Brown and “yours truly”.
Photo: Author.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to be part of the team. The IBC funding only covered transport, accommodation and food, so it was a labour of love. We supplied and ran the stand for three years, 1997, 1998 and 1999, in different locations within the exhibition centre, becoming a more prominent display as our efforts became more appreciated. The equipment displays changed, evolved and grew. I have to say it was hard work but satisfying. The interest in our stands also grew and grew, we made a lot of friends and I hope answered a lot of questions about the kit that many of those new to television had never seen before.

The third year was the most interesting, and our most ambitious; we took along an ex Yorkshire Television (YTV) 2” Quadruplex VTR and a Marconi MKVII camera channel. The kit filled a 3-ton tail lift truck that we hired. I am sure we overloaded the truck and certainly the tail lift which refused to lift the VTR weighing in at just under 3⁄4 of a ton. Once you know where the tail lift adjustments are, which were deliberately set on the conservative side, everything becomes possible.

I drew the short straw and drove the truck there and back with a little help from North Seas Ferries and Pauline my wife who supplied the navigation, translation and life support I so often need. At times this was down to getting the sun to shine on the correct side window. I would expect nothing less from someone related to Captain Cook. We did make it without incident, although we both felt sure that somebody in authority was going to appear, stop us and direct us onto a weighbridge as the truck suspension was permanently on its bump stops.

We arrived and unloaded, the scary bit was when we pushed the VT onto the tail lift (it’s on wheels) and either the truck reared up or the tail lift drooped, or both I’m not sure, but the truck assumed something other than a level playing field providing a definite advantage to the pushers and a huge disadvantage to me the only member of the braking team.

The VTR machine, in its working life, is used to responding to the command “Run VT”, for once it took it literally and really did run, it was alarming. I feared for my life playing King Canute trying to hold back the machine, which was heading for the tail lift exit, using me as a landing pad. It stopped, and I was thankful not to have TR70 crush injuries on any ensuing medical paperwork. The tail lift brought it down to ground (this was never in doubt it was the reverse direction we worried about). We were able to push it along the corridors to our stand and it raised quite a stir as it travelled past the stands along the way.

Photo of TR70B VTR
“Run VT”. Photo: IBC Daily News

Our stand that year was just outside the main exhibition bar, what a place for a stand, you were guaranteed the foot fall of all foot falls by the superb location, but perhaps just the odd jibe about cutting edge technology from those leaving the bar. They should have seen the Iconoscope camera we took the previous year, even I was not around when they were the main source of studio pictures. The late Grant Dixon also came to join us and brought his 30 line mechanically scanned TV. Now the revellers in the bar really did think they were in a time warp.

Trevor Brown and Grant Dixon.
The author and Grant Dixon with his 30-line mechanical TV exhibit. Photo: Author
Trevor with MkVII camera
The author with Marconi MkVII camera. Photo: Author

I will not say the exhibition went without a hitch, there were several, the first being compressed air which Quadruplex machines require for the head wheel air bearing and, on some versions, tape guides too.

The machines are equipped with an internal compressor, but the noise these generate can successfully compete with a small jack hammer. We took along an external compressor and a long pipe, so we could put the compressor behind the exhibition wall in the indoor carpark and connect the two, passing the pipe through via a small air grate.

External air is common on these machines, the internal compressor only kicks in during an emergency. The external flexible pipe work, connecting the machine and compressor is normally very substantial. We tried to make do with garden hosepipe, this got warm particularly at the compressor end where there were some diameter changes in the mechanical fit. The pipe would then soften and part company with the compressor. The simple fix was to cut the deformed end off and refit it. Yes, the pipe got shorter by the day by about 12” but the mathematics were on our side, the hose was long enough but the geography certainly was not, to get to the other side of the wall was a 20min round trip including stairs, escalators and several corridors, so we drew up a short straw list to take turns to trim and refit the pipe end every 3 hours.

Trevor Brown with TR70B VTR
The author with TR70B VTR up and running at IBC 1999. Photo: Author

The technology held together, the RCA TR70B is built of germanium transistors which are renowned for having a finite life, one or two did choose this visit to Amsterdam to expire, but between them and the hosepipe trimming I suspect we ran the machine on demand for all the exhibition without any serious down time. This included some considerable overheating from the unseasonable warm weather so Jill and Pauline went shopping for a fan and returned with something that could only be equalled by a small hovercraft. It worked and I suspect it has now become a permanent resident in the BECG equipment store.

The team with interested onlookers! Photo: Author

On my return from an air hose refit, I found quite a gathering of people and questions being fielded by the team. One was from an ex-colleague who identified the machine as ex YTV, by the unique black pushbutton just above the module bay, no, it’s not in the manual and the exact function is a secret known only to members of YTV VTR department and must remain that way.

YTV disposed of Six TR70 machines, one TR50 and one TR61. One TR70B is part of the BECG collection, one went to the Bradford Museum and the TR50 went to Becketts University. The TR61, ex OBs, is also whereabouts unknown. I have no idea where all the other machines went to, or if they still exist.

Everything changed in the 80s when the company re equipped with helical scan machines, which were cheap and purported to be reliable.

The Quads cost £70k in their 60s heyday, by comparison a semi-detached house in Leeds would cost £3 to 4k. The heads last around 300 to 500 hours before an expensive rework (often around £2k), to run one of these machines, it needs to seriously earn its keep. I think we used up two spare heads during the exhibition as VTR machines should only be run in a clean air area and this location was anything but.

IBC team with TR70B
L-R: Trevor Brown, Paul Marshall and Dave Hill at the close of IBC 1999. Photo: Author

My thanks to the team, it was hard work, both the transporting of the equipment there and back, the setting up and on-site running repairs which were frequent, but nothing that was insurmountable.

There was considerable interest in both the camera and the VTR, it is a pity we did not have the BECG up and running then we would have recruited a lot of members.

© Trevor Brown 2021