405 lines

405-line television system

The 405-line monochrome analogue television broadcasting system was the first fully electronic television system to be used in regular broadcasting.

It was introduced with the BBC Television Service in 1936, suspended for the duration of World War II, and remained in operation in the UK until 1985, and was also used between 1961 and 1982 in Ireland as well as from 1957 for the Rediffusion Television cable television service in Hong Kong.

Sometimes called the Marconi-EMI system, it was developed in 1934 by the EMI Research Team led by Sir Isaac Shoenberg. The figure of 405 lines had been chosen following discussions over Sunday lunch at the home of Alan Blumlein. The system was the first to use interlacing; the 405 scanning lines were broadcast in two complementary fields, 50 times per second, creating 25 frames per second. Of the 405 lines, 377 were used for the image. By today's DVB nomenclature standards, it could be called 377i.

Though articles at the time of its introduction referred to the 405-line system as "high definition", that was in relation to the crude mechanical television systems that preceded it; this should not be confused with modern-day high-definition television.


The system was used by the BBC Television Service from their Alexandra Palace site beginning in November 1936, at first time-sharing broadcasts with the 240-line Baird system; however, after three months of trials (in January 1937) the Baird system was abandoned in favour of exclusive broadcasting with the 405-line Marconi-EMI system on VHF. This became the standard for all British TV broadcasts until the 1960s.

It soon became apparent that television reception was also possible well outside the original intended service area. In February 1938, engineers at the RCA Research Station, Riverhead, Long Island, were able to receive the signal 5,000 km (3,000 miles) away, due to the signal being "bounced" back to earth from the ionosphere. A few minutes of programming were recorded on 16 mm movie film. This is now considered to be the only surviving example of pre-war, live British television. The images recorded included Jasmine Bligh and a brief shot of Elizabeth Cowell, two of the original three BBC announcers, an excerpt from an unknown period costume drama, and the BBC's station identification transmitted at the beginning and end of the day's programmes.

The BBC temporarily ceased transmissions on September 1, 1939 the day of the German invasion of Poland, as war was imminent. After the BBC Television Service recommenced in 1946, distant reception reports were received from various parts of the world, including Italy, South Africa, India, the Middle East, North America and the Caribbean.

In 1954 the BBC lost its monopoly of the British television market, and the following year the commercial network ITV, comprising a consortium of regional companies, was launched.

Some ITV companies, notably Lew Grade's ATV, proposed broadcasting in colour using a 405-line variation on the NTSC system, but the BBC persuaded the Government that colour should await the introduction of a higher-definition system.

In 1964 the BBC launched its BBC Two service on UHF using only a 625-line (576i) system, which older sets could not receive. PAL colour was introduced in 1967.

In November 1969 BBC One and ITV also started broadcasting in 625-line PAL colour in UHF. As their programming was now entirely produced using the new standard, the 405-line broadcasts served only as a rebroadcast in monochrome for people who did not have the newer receivers.

One reason for the long switchover period was the difficulty in matching the coverage level of the new UHF 625 line service with the very high level of geographic coverage achieved with the 405-line VHF service.

The last 405-line transmissions were seen on January 3, 1985, in Scotland, having been shut down one day earlier in the rest of the UK. This left only the UHF PAL system in operation in the UK. The frequencies used by the 405-line system were initially left empty, but were later sold off, used now for other purposes including DAB and trunked PMR commercial two way radio systems.


Ireland's use of the 405-line system began only in 1961, with the launch of Telefís Éireann, but extended solely to two transmitters and five relays of them, serving the east and north of the country where many people had sets for receiving broadcasts from Wales or Northern Ireland. Telefís Éireann (later to become RTÉ One) was also simulcast on 625-line from the summer of 1962 onwards, two years before the BBC had any 625 channels.

  • The last 405-line relays, in County Donegal were turned off in 1982, with the main transmitters having been disabled in 1978 to free up frequency for RTÉ Two; with the relays being fed with standards converters from the local 625-line transmitter.
  • For the last five years of RTÉ 405-line programming relays a simple orthicon converter, essentially a 405-line camera pointed at a 625-line monitor, was used as the more expensive system converters that RTÉ previously used had broken down.

Hong Kong

The 405-line system was used in the Rediffusion Television cable television service in Hong Kong, established in 1957, making it both the first British colony and the first predominantly Chinese city to have television.

405-line video recordings


A few 405-line videotapes still survive. However, the majority of surviving 405-line programmes are in the form of black and white film telerecordings, usually with optical soundtracks.


405-line programming may be recorded and played on an unmodified VHS or Betamax video recorder, as long as the input to the recorder is baseband rather than RF. Thus various modern video recordings of 405 line programming also exist.

System A

405-line is system A in the CCIR assignment of broadcast systems. The audio uses Amplitude Modulation rather than the Frequency Modulation in use on modern analogue systems. In addition, the system was broadcast in an aspect ratio of 5:4 until 3rd April 1950 when it changed to the more common 4:3 format.

All System A transmitters used vestigial sideband transmission, with the single exception of Alexandra Palace in London, which closed down in 1957 when it was replaced by Crystal Palace.

System Lines Frame rate Channel bandwidth (in MHz) Visual bandwidth (in MHz) Sound offset Vestigial sideband Vision mod. Sound mod.
System A 405 25 5 3 -3.5 0.75 Pos. AM

Why 50 fields per second

Since the mid-1930s it has been standard practice to use a field frequency equal to the AC mains electric supply frequency (or a submultiple thereof) 50 Hz in most countries (60 Hz in others) because studio lighting generally uses alternating current lamps and if these were not synchronized with the field frequency, an unwelcome strobe effect could appear on TV pictures. Secondly the smoothing (filtering) of power supply circuits in early TV receivers was rather poor and ripple superimposed on the DC could cause visual interference. If the picture was locked to the mains frequency, this interference would at least be static on the screen and thus less obtrusive.

Why 405 lines

Because an interlaced system requires accurate positioning of scanning lines it is important to make sure that the horizontal and vertical timebase are in a precise ratio. This is accomplished by passing the one through a series of electronic divider circuits to produce the other. Each division is by a prime number. Therefore there has to be a straightforward mathematical relationship between the line and field frequencies, the latter being derived by dividing down from the former. Technology constraints of the 1930s meant that this division process could only be done using small integers, preferably no greater than 7, for good stability. The number of lines was odd because of 2:1 interlace. The 405 line system used a vertical frequency of 50 Hz (Standard AC mains supply frequency in Britain) and a horizontal one of 10,125Hz (50 × 405 ÷ 2)

405 compared with later standards


When used with vestigial sideband filtering the total bandwidth of a 405-line TV channel is 5 MHz, significantly less than the 8 MHz required by the 625-line system I, which replaced it in Britain. Systems in other countries used anything between six and fourteen megahertz of bandwidth per channel.


The use of VHF frequencies combined with the narrow vision bandwidth (AM signals [at VHF low band frequencies] are less affected by noise as bandwidth is reduced) meant that 405-line signals could be received well even under marginal conditions. Therefore it was possible to cover virtually all of the UK with a relatively small number of transmitting stations.

Susceptibility to impulse interference

The use of AM (rather than FM) for sound and the use of positive (rather than negative) video modulation made 405-line signals very susceptible to impulse interference, such as that generated by the ignition systems of vehicles. Such interference manifested itself as a loud popping on sound and large bright spots on the picture which viewers found a lot more noticeable than the dark spots encountered when such interference is encountered on a signal using negative video modulation.

Whistle due to line output transformer magnetostriction

The 405-line system produced a noticeable 10,125 Hz whistle in many sets, equal to the number of lines per second. This high-pitched whistle is caused by magnetostriction in the line output transformer.

This is a common artifact in sets that use a cathode ray tube. While all CRT-based television systems produce such a noise, the higher number of lines per second in later standards produce frequencies (PAL's 15,625 Hz and NTSC's 15,734 Hz) that are at the upper end of the audible spectrum, and which not all people are able to hear; more modern sets also tend to be less susceptible to this effect.

Equalizing pulses

The absence of equalizing pulses to facilitate interlace was defended at the start of the BBC service on the grounds that it only caused a lack of interlace with field synchronizing separators of the integrator type, and that there were, even at that time, numerous other circuits which gave completely accurate interlace without equalizing pulses. The question was raised again from time to time, but a series of tests, conducted during 1952 in cooperation with the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers' Association, confirmed that there was no general need for equalizing pulses.

Spot wobble

On some larger TV screen sizes, the scanned lines were not fat enough to give 100% coverage of the CRT. The result was a lined picture with darkness between each horizontal scanned line, reducing picture brightness and contrast. Larger screen sets often used a spot wobble oscillator that slightly elongated the scanning spot vertically at high frequency to avoid this line separation effect without reducing horizontal sharpness.

Experimental colour transmissions

During the late 1950s and early-mid 1960's some experimental colour broadcasts were made in the UK using the 405-line system using NTSC colour encoding. The subcarrier frequency was 2.6578125 MHz (525/2 times line frequency) with an "I" signal bandwidth of 500 kHz and a "Q" signal bandwidth of 300 kHz. Tests with PAL SECAM and other NTSC subcarrier frequencies were also attempted.

Some of these broadcasts were on UHF (also an experimental technology at the time), while others were carried over the regular VHF network outside of normal broadcasting hours.


Further reading

Robson, Neil, 'Living Pictures Out of Space: The Forlorn Hopes for Television in Pre-1939 London', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 24, no. 2 (June 2004), pp. 223-32.

See also

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