Page last updated at 17:42 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 18:42 UK

Celebrating a stereo pioneer: Alan Blumlein

By Martin Shankleman
Archive Hour, Radio 4

Bombing raid on London, Getty Images
Blumlein's work on radar helped the RAF defeat German night bombers

Alan Blumlein's pioneering work in the 1930s was considered a sensation by the handful of people who knew him.

"It's my considered belief he was the greatest scientist engineer I have ever known. Had he lived he would have been the Michael Faraday of our age," said the late Professor James McGee, a distinguished engineer in his own right, an FRS and a colleague of Blumlein.

His brilliance propelled Britain to the forefront of the emerging science of audio engineering, TV and radar.

But because much of his work was secret, the public are still unaware of his achievements. The BBC has uncovered a range of archive sources to tell the story of his brief but extraordinary life.

Born in 1903 in London, to a Scottish mother and German father, Alan Blumlein quickly developed an obsession with engineering and, aged 7, repaired his parent's door bell and sent them a bill for 6d.

After graduating from London's City and Guilds College (part of Imperial) in 1924, he turned his attention to electrical engineering, and invented an entire sound recording system for Columbia, a forerunner to EMI, in 1929.

He immediately realised that sound from a single source lacked realism, and developed a "binaural" recording system, or stereo as we know it, which he patented in 1933.

Lack of commercial interest prompted EMI to shelve the research, and Blumlein moved on to the development of television.

In 1936 EMI unveiled the world's first electronic high definition TV system, which was soon adopted by the BBC, replacing the crude mechanical system developed by John Logie Baird.

Blumlein immersed himself in every aspect of the project, from the Emitron electronic cameras, to the transmitters at Alexandra Palace. His colleagues from this days argue that Blumlein, more than any other individual, should be considered the true inventor of television.

Within six months of the launch of the BBC service, Blumlein had designed the video links which permitted outside broadcasts, and they were used, for the first time, to show the Coronation procession of King George VI, live from Hyde Park Corner in May 1937.

Radar pioneer

When BBC TV was turned off at two hours notice at the start of World War II in September 1939, Blumlein switched to radar, becoming the classic backroom boffin.

Alan Blumlein, EMI
There are few extant images of Alan Blumlein

At first the Air Ministry blocked Blumlein and EMI from working on radar, as it was considered "the secret within the secret".

But it soon relented, and Blumlein played a key role in getting the Air Interception (AI) radar, the world's first, to work.

From the start of 1941 This helped the RAF to beat back the German night bomber offensive, although the public were told the success of the pilots was due to their diet of carrots which helped them see in the dark.

Blumlein and EMI were then elevated to working on the most important radar project of the war, H2S, a system which enabled the RAF to bomb through thick cloud.

In June 1942 he was on board a Halifax bomber testing a prototype of H2S, which crashed in the Wye Valley killing all 11 on board, including Blumlein.

News of the crash was suppressed to stop Hitler discovering about the setback to the project. However, using Blumlein's circuit designs, the Air Ministry managed to complete the development of H2S, which proved decisive in turning the war.

When he died Alan Blumlein was 38. He received no obituary and still does not appear in Who's Who.

The Man Who Invented Stereo can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 20.00 on Saturday 2 August 2008.


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