101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 42: Teletext

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Before Birmingham gave the World the Internet, information traveled at a much slower and more unreliable pace. Say you were on the terraces of the Spion kop on a Saturday afternoon, depressed, waiting and hoping for some light relief from Billy McNeill’s Aston Villa who were probably losing away at Watford: a mention on round-the-grounds round-up on the radio would filter through the one earpiece of the man with the anorak and transistor, be mumbled to a bloke trying not to stand too close to him, a rumour might become a ripple, would become a gale of laughter. If you missed the classified check, you wouldn’t really know what happened until the Sports Argus came out—and by that time you were usually well on the way to not caring.

Teletext changed all that. Pages around the magic number of 302 would be refreshed and rotated all around the country: from living room to pub. It was a revelation, provided you had a newish telly and a decent signal you could get information in a matter of minutes.

You won’t be in the least surprised that it’s Birmingham that is responsible for the BREAKING NEWS culture that drowns us, but it’s a more circulatory route than some. You can’t of course have teletext without television—and we couldn’t have had it if broadcasting television didn’t work quite the way it does.

In 1971 Philips (CAL) Laboratories engineer John Adams created a design and proposal for UK broadcasters, which became accepted universally as the basis for all future Teletext systems and standards. Eventually it would be established across the globe. Teletext information was broadcast in the vertical blanking interval between image frames in a broadcast television signal—in the gaps between the pictures.

And where do the gaps in between the pictures come from? Guess.

To have gaps, you have to have a series of pictures: those pictures form movement due to something called persistence of vision. Before film, before the What the Butler Saw machines, there was the flip book—the first form of animation to employ a linear sequence of images rather than circular (as in the older phenakistoscope)—and they all work in the same way. The first flip book appeared in September 1868 when it was patented by John Barnes Linnett—a lithographer from Birmingham—under the name kineograph (“moving picture”).

From there it’s a short hundred or so years until finding out that Graham Turner has been sacked just after it’s happened: thanks to Birmingham and Teletext. These days when Graham Turner is sacked we just turn to Twitter.

Author: Jon Bounds

Jon was voted the ‘14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands’ in 2008. Subsequently he has not been placed. He’s been a football referee, venetian blind maker, cellar man, and a losing Labour council candidate: “No, no chance. A complete no-hoper” said a spoilt ballot. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama performed on Twitter when he persuaded a cast including MPs and journalists to give over their timelines to perform Twitpanto. But all that is behind him.