Friday, 28 February 2014

Gadgets & Gizmos Out of Time 50's Tech Then and Now by Mickie Newton

Torchwood Gadgets and Gizmos
Out of Time” 50s Tech Then and Now
By Mickie Newton


In this months issue we take another, slightly, different tact to the usual. Normally, when I write this article I look at the technologies seen either in the episode of focus, or in the case of tech light episodes I look at other technologies that appear somewhere in the series. But not in issue 11. This time I decided to delve elsewhere.

As you all know “Out of Time” looks at three people, from 1953, who arrive on the plane, the 'Sky Gypsy' piloted by one of the three, Diane Holmes. The story looks at how the Torchwood team attempt to integrate these 'time refugees' into the 21st century and how to an extent, they fail.

Now some of you may have been children during 1953 and so may have some memories of what life was like. But many of us were either too young to remember or weren't even born at that time. So in this issues addition of Gadgets and Gizmo’s we look at some of the technologies of 1953 and compare them to today's equivalent, so that you can get some idea how far we have come in 60 years. And so the 'What Do We Have On Earth' section is, for this issue we have a 'Then', for the 50s and a 'Now' for the 21st century!

Before we continue, just want to say a thank you to my mum and dad for their combined knowledge of the 1950s. My dad is a former panel beater and sprayer, as well as a mechanic and he worked, in the 1960s, on cars that could be 20 or more years old. And my mum, well she just knows a lot of stuff!

So let’s step into the TARDIS and take a step back to 1953 and look at Television Sets, the car and the Refrigerator.

Television Sets – Then!

Before1953 very few house holds owned a television as they were extremely expensive to buy, most of those were in the London area, and few people felt the need. There was very little in the way of television programmes and so made it really an unnecessary purchase. 

Televisions did exist before the outbreak of World War II, but they were few and far between. Mostly in the London area and only owned by those who could afford them. The BBC launched, from Alexandra Palace, their own regular service back in August of 1932 and they used Baird’s 30-line electromechanical system until 1935. In 1936 the BBC changed to a dual-system service and alternated between Marconi-EMI's 405-line standard and Baird's improved 240-line standard. The BBC (now known as BBC One) had the first regular high-definition (it was nothing like today’s HD) television service. It was decided that the Marconi-EMI system had a much superior picture and so the Baird's system was dropped in 1937. Between 1936 and 1939 television was broadcasted, in London, an average of 4 hours per day and there was between 12,000 and 15,000 television sets. On September 1st 1939 the broadcasting came to a sudden end when World War II broke-out and it wasn't until June 1st 1946 when BBC broadcasting resumed from Alexandra Palace.

In 1947 there was a mere 15,000 through out the country, by 1952 that had increased to 1.4 million and in 1968 it was a massive 15.1 million. 

What caused the increase in the number of TVs in the United Kingdom was the announcement of the Queens Coronation. People throughout the country wanted to see this very special event and it was around this time that HP (Hire Purchase) came into being. Some people also decided to rent, most notably from Radio Rentals. But there were still many who couldn't afford to do either. So when the day came, many a home had more than one family watching the event. To get some idea what this was like, watch the Doctor Who episode 'Idiots Lantern' of season two. A whole story that revolves around the Queen's Coronation, people buying televisions and a scary alien wanting to suck peoples faces off! Well maybe not suck the face off, but you know what I mean. Just make a note of how many TV aerials there are. In 1953 there's was probably less than half of what you see on the average street.

What you will also notice is how small and basic the television sets are. Very small screens, poor picture, in comparison to today’s HD TVs. Instead of tiny components and circuitry behind the screen, there were large bulb-like objects called valves. Even the screen wasn't flat, either at the front or back. The front slightly arched out and the back of screen protruded out to the rear in a pyramid like shape with a valve at the centre, so making the case very large indeed in comparison to todays very compact TV sets.

Three other very noticeable differences were that the picture was in black and white and the sound was mono, coming out of only one single speaker AND only ONE channel. ITV didn't come into being until September 1955 and BBC2, it wasn't until April 1964. Today we have 24 hour TV, but then the BBC didn't start up until tea time and it was only for a few hours. Saying that, 24 hour TV didn't come in until

And with a little help from wiki itself here are significant television events and débuts of 1953 look out for a fabulous Doctor Who link in the guise of the second Doctor himself.


17 Mar   Patrick Troughton becomes television's first Robin Hood, playing the 
               eponymous folk hero in the first of six half-hour episodes of Robin
               Hood, shown weekly until 21 April on the BBC Television Service.

1 May     The BBC brings into service television transmitters at Pontop Pike
               (County Durham) and Glencairn (Belfast) to improve coverage prior to 
               the Coronation broadcast.

2 Jun      The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is televised in the UK on the      
                BBC Television Service. Sales of TV sets rise sharply in the weeks
                leading up to the event. It is also one of the earliest broadcasts to be
                deliberately recorded for posterity and still exists in its entirety today.

18 Jul     The Quatermass Experiment, first of the famous Quatermass science-
               fiction serials by Nigel Kneale, begins its run on the BBC.

20 Jul     The Good Old Days begins on the BBC Television Service.

11 Nov   The current affairs series Panorama launches on the BBC Television           
                Service. It is now the longest-running program on British television.

26 Nov   Peers in the House of Lords back Government plans for the   
                introduction of commercial television in the UK.

2 Dec    The BBC broadcasts its 'Television Symbol' for the first time, the first          
               animated television presentation symbol in the world. Known as the        
               'bat's wings' by logo enthusiasts, it would remain until 1960.


17 Mar   Robin Hood (1953)

18 Jul     The Quatermass Experiment (1953)

20 Jul     The Good Old Days (1953–1983)

11 Nov    Panorama (1953–present)

                Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1953–1965)

Television Sets – Now!

I have lived in my town for almost 40 years now, and even in that time Television sets have changed vastly. When we got our 1st TV it was black and white, even though colour TV existed it was incredibly expensive. Most people couldn't afford them. They also still had valves in the back and a terrible tuning system, poor picture and mono sound. And worse of all you had to get off your bottom to change the channel or turn up the volume. Can you imagine? When remote controllers did come out, they were attached to your TV via a cable and could only do simple tasks, i.e. change channel and volume.

Now TVs are all digital-only, the days of analogue TV are long gone. We have cordless remote controllers that not only change the channel and increase the volume. They also allow you to set set the brightness, colour, and contrast. You can also tune the TV to the hundreds of channels available, search the digital guide (who needs paper TV Guides?!) and set to watch or record, Change the ratio of your screen to wide-screen, zoomed, and if you really want to go retro, 4:1, that's square. And many TVs have minimum function without the remote control, such as changing the channel and volume, sounds familiar? So don't lose your remote!

Another very obvious change is that instead of the huge bulky TVs taking up masses of room we now have flat-screen TVs that are for the most part HD (high definition), that allows the viewer to see every detail (much the dislike of many an actor. If make-up is applied badly, or an actor hasn't got good skin, it will show.) We have 5:1 surround sound. And we even have 3D TV, though not in many homes as of yet. If you have a 'smart TV' you can access online on-demand channels, such as BBC iPlayer that allow you to watch shows from previous days. And even surf the internet. And if you have a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) you can record your shows digitally, most PVRs have a 500 gig hard drive. Somewhat more storage than the average video tape me thinks.

On top of that, you don't even NEED to own a TV as you can watch your favourites shows from your desk top computer, laptop, tablet or even your mobile/cell phone and it will be as clear as it will be on your 50” flat screen TV (if that is you wish to own a TV with a screen as big as a house!)

So as you can see, we have come a very long way, even in 40 years, let alone 60. If this is where we are now, where will we be in the next 20 years?

The Car – Then!

In 1953 the car really wasn't that too different from what it had been 20 or 30 years previous. What was different was better reliability, fuel consumption, breaking systems, speed, gearing and body work. Even the look of a car, its bodywork, hadn't really changed too much since before the war.

During this time, and after, you really did need to be able to drive. You didn't have the ease that power steering gives you and fewer gears. They were slower and much heavier than modern cars are. There is a lot of plastic in modern cars, where as the car's of the 50s will have been metal and wood and possibly some bakelite on the dashboard and around the hand break and gearbox.

Due to his business, John Ellis will probably have owned a car and the chances are it would have been a beast of a car in comparison to todays. Its clutch system may well have not been as smooth (some even required you to double-declutch, when changing to a lower gear) whereas today the gears are all synchronised making life much easier and your drive very much smoother.

There was also far fewer cars on the road. Even when we moved to my town near on 40 years ago, there was much fewer cars. Though cars seem expensive today, in comparison, they are cheaper. People’s wages are also much higher and it's much easier to purchase a car over so many years.

Just to give you some idea of costs in the 50s. In 1953 the average working man’s wage would be about £3.00 a week or £156 - £200 a year, and a new family saloon around £500, and a new house about £500 for a semi.

The Car – Now!

Today's modern cars couldn't be more different. Like many things cars, changed very little, but in recent years, much like computers, they have had a huge leap. There was a time that if you knew how to strip a car engine, you could do general repairs, as well as the usual oil change, checking there's enough wash for windscreen wipers, checking tyre pressure and even changing a tyre. Everything from the oil to wheel changing you can do. But you need a laptop and knowledge on how to use said laptop in conjunction with engine, when it comes to dealing with the engine.

As well as complex engines, the many modern cars (depending on how much you are prepared to pay) have central locking, electric windows, 5 or 6 gear box, cruising gears, car reversing detectors, doors that can be opened with out a key and car engines that can also be started without a key, LED lights, heated rear-windows, heated seats, Front seats that not only slide back and forth, but also raise, steering wheels that can be adjusted for the driver, DVD players in the back for the front seats to entertain the kids,  either CD or MP3 players, surround sound, blue tooth, built in Sat-Nav, built in computerised systems for fuel consumption etc, cars that will not start up until all occupants have fastened their seat belts, heating and cooling system, power steering.

I dare say I could go on and on how different modern cars are. And maybe most people think all these changes are excellent and most are. Where the problems lay are things like car maintenance. Any car engine knowledge you have is probably irrelevant as they've changed so much you may as well know nothing.

People have also become lazy when it comes to navigation and assume that everything the Sat Nav spits out is correct, which is why so many turn up the wrong road of end up up to their necks in water when the car plunges into a lake or river. Power steering and reversing signals also make for a lazy driver and in the long term a dangerous drive as they become so reliant on all these gimmicks, they forget how to actual drive.

When the episode 'Out of Time' was made many of these new functions existed, some, such as computerisation, didn't. Ianto, like all Torchwood operatives, will have been well paid and so will have had a very nice, top of the range car. So it begs the question how John Ellis managed to leap into his car and take off so easily. There would have been power steering, 5 gears, electric windows, strange dials, a security system to get past. Cars from John's could have had a column change gear, meaning the gear changing stick was attached to the steering column with only 3 gears. Ianto's car could have been, like many modern cars, an automatic. There was no such thing back in the 1950s. Then there's four-wheel drive. In the 50s the only four-wheel drive was military vehicles. And like all modern cars, Ianto's car would have had synchronized gear box. In the 50s this wasn't the case and so, as I said earlier, cars were double-d -clutch. So as I said, I find it unlikely he'd have left so quickly, if at all, as he apparently had.

The Refrigerator -Then!

The first refrigerators for home and domestic use were invented way back in 1913 by Fred W. Wolf of Fort Wayne.  Now first of all it must be said that there were still many homes, at this time, that still didn't own a refrigerator as they were seen, much like a car or television, as a luxury and so not deemed as a necessary purchase. Even today you can see, in a pre 1970s house, in the pantry, a cold stone shelf where meat, milk, cheese etc. were kept to keep cool. But saying that, they were also seen commercially as a must-have for the 1950s housewife. Today we take such things for granted, but not so much then. If you didn't own a refrigerator, then you had to shop much more often and would often waste money when something went off.

So the refrigerator made life, if you could afford one, much easier as you could keep food much longer than you could on a cold stone. Many of these also came with an ice-maker which was excellent on hot summers days for cold drinks.

A top refrigerator/bottom freezer, also known as the bottom-mount fridge, came into being in the 1950's. This had made life even easier than just the initial refrigerator as you could now freeze many foods and so keeping them even longer.

Also in the 50s we saw the development of the auto defrost system. Earlier systems saw the problem of ice-crystals forming within the freezer. This was due to air condensing inside the freezer after the door had been open. Though not all freezers in the 50s had the defrosting system built in.

The Refrigerator - Now!

The Fridge and fridge freezer hasn't, in truth, changed hugely since the 50s, unlike the television or car. Where they have changed is such things as the capacity, how economical they are on electricity, being more eco friendly where we saw the banning of the use of Freon fridges i.e. CFCs gasses, variety of styles and reliability.

Today you can choose to purchase a freezer that allows you to freeze non-frozen items at a much quicker rate than a normal freezer. They can come with various extras such as ice makers fitted in the door or water holder to keep cool water that can be poured via a tap on the front of the door. You can purchase fridges with built in wine racks.

In the early 50s they were normally white, but by the late 50s through to the present day both designers and manufacturers started to introduce colour. A black refrigerator, in the 80s, was seen as luxurious. Now you can purchase a fridge/freezer in white or black and if you are prepared to pay more and it’s available, you will find them in bright colours. Most notably SMEG, who make retro style fridge/freezers, sell them in mint greens, red and so forth, surprisingly, however – kitchen equipment such as cookers, fridges, freezers, washers etc., which are commonly referred to as ‘white goods’ are still mostly bought in white – and surveys still show that it is most popular because it looks clean & hygienic – something which has not changed in over 60 years!



Torchwood: The Encyclopedia by Gary Russell

The Torchwood Archives by Warren Martyn aka Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The Encyclopedia A Definitive Guide to Time and Space
By Gary Russell


Television Sets

TV Programming


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