In 1931 a revolutionary type of microphone housed in an unusual sideways teardrop-shaped capsule was introduced by the BBC. Its oddly-shaped housing earned it the nickname, the ‘bomb’.
We acquired two examples in 2012 as part of the BBC Collection. In use from 1931 until about 1935, it was eventually replaced by the iconic Marconi Type A ribbon microphone. A major strength of the BBC Collection is its diverse selection of over 100 broadcast-quality microphones.
How does the ‘bomb’ microphone work?
The torpedo-like case contains a single-valve amplifier, essential because of the weak audio signal produced by the insensitive condenser microphone inside.
The amplifier had been developed by BBC engineers, consisting of a cylindrical unit embodying the amplifier components, mounted in rubber sponge inside the streamlined aluminum housing.
The streamlining itself did not possess any acoustical advantage, but it enabled a neat and pleasing unit to be designed, in accordance with the acoustical requirements. The microphones were manufactured in Britain by Standard Telephones and Cables (STC), formerly Western Electric.
Condenser microphones consist of a capacitor with one plate fixed and the other forming the diaphragm which moves when sound waves are present.
Although they are commonplace today, and the technology has been perfected, they were largely experimental at the time. The microphones could be unreliable and were subject to going noisy under even moderately humid conditions, therefore they were never used for outside broadcasts.
It was found that even the slightest trace of moisture needed to be excluded from the wiring and components of the amplifier by sealing up as much as possible of the latter in paraffin wax. In addition, the greatest care needed to be taken in the selection of the type of valve used in the amplifier.
Despite these precautions, valve noise remained a difficulty owing to the low sensitivity of the microphone itself.
One of them was installed in Studio 3B at Broadcasting House, where it was used used by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). A fairly accurate replica appeared in The King’s Speech (2010), but in the opening scene of the film there is an anachronism: The bomb microphone is seen in use in a BBC studio in 1925, 6 years before it was introduced.
The ‘bomb’ on television
Spring mounted in a frame on a movable floor stand, ‘the bomb’ became a regular fixture in the first-ever BBC television studio, located in Broadcasting House down in Studio BB (the sub-basement).
Regular television broadcasts began from this studio on August 22nd, 1932 using John Logie Baird’s (my grandfather’s) 30-line system.
These were semi-experimental, in that the service was broadcast to a very limited number of viewers, and it was expected that in a few years, bespoke television transmitters would enable television broadcasting to move to a more advanced stage. It was the first time that television programmes had been made on a regular basis by the BBC.
The major reason that ‘the bomb’ microphone was chosen for television is that it is omni-directional – it can pick up sound from all directions. This allowed the early 1930s television performers to move around in the studio freely without constantly worrying about drifting out of the range of the microphone.
It was awkward to move the microphone while a performance was in progress, so the positioning of it prior to the beginning of the television programme was quite critical.
Once the programme began, the television studio was almost completely dark, because the studio operated on the ‘flying spot’ system.
In this system, a narrow beam of light would scan across the scene, and the reflections would be picked up by photo-electric cells on the studio wall.
Because it was so dark, during a visit to the studio by the American composer Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the recently-appointed leader of the BBC Dance Orchestra Henry Hall (1898 – 1989) accidentally damaged one of the ‘bomb’ microphones. Standing before the screen he sang one of Irving’s songs, and he was moved by the chorus to try a step dance. He caught his foot in one of the cables, the microphone stand fell over, cracking the aluminium housing on the microphone.
In February 1934 the BBC decided to move television out of Broadcasting House to a larger studio at 16 Portland Place where the low-definition 30 line broadcasts continued, with the ‘bomb’ microphone still being used for sound. Studio BB was then used by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra.
You can see one of our STC condenser microphones at the Museum, on display in our permanent television gallery, Experience TV as part of a small temporary exhibition about the acquisition of the BBC Collection.