The Cathode Ray Creature

He was the man who could do anything.

His words are securely recorded at London’s Imperial War Museum, as a record of D-Day plus eight, the day he and his comrades travelled in an amphibious vehicle across the English Channel, up to their ankles in sea water.

My husband learnt to drive in a cheeky mini; Charles, his father, learnt on an army base . As part of the advancing Allied forces after D-Day, anyone who could drive was employed to do so. He drove hefty vans and tanks and Brenn machine gun vehicles. He was an engineer with REME, The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

He learnt self-sufficiency and never un-learnt it. When he arrived back in England with a Belgian wife there was nowhere to live, and they moved into an old Nissen hut, where his daughter was born, and he made the family comfortable. He never really believed that there was much he could not do.

He built his own conservatory; wired an entire Cornish cottage; planned and fitted out a large extension. He maintained all his cars meticulously, laid patios, andΒ learnt elementary plumbing.

In February 1952 he, like everyone else, mourned the passing of the man who had seen the British people through the dark days of the war, King George VI. But as is always the way with the monarchy, preparations bustled ahead for the coronation of a new monarch. The date was set for June 2, 1952.

Technology had moved on since the last king’s coronation in 1937. Now, the crowning could actually be filmed. And the one must-have accessory for June 2 was one of the early televisions.

Early tellies were very different animals to today’s sleek screened beauties.They were a hot mass of valves and wiring, circulated around a cathode ray tube,which had a fluorescent screen to receive images. Valves? you’ve never seen such valves.

So when news of the coronation broke, my father in law chose not to go out, as many families did, and buy a television tidily boxed. No; he decided to make a television.

Why not? He was clearly invincible, and whatever he put his mind to he achieved. He secured all the parts which would create a gogglebox fit to view a queen, and set about making it.

He set up a table in one of the smaller bedrooms and gradually built on top of it. And bit by bit, his electrical monster rose from the table’s surface, a thoroughly modern electrical monster. Dr Frankenstein had nothing on Dr Shrewsday. It grew inexorably until it all but filled the room.

By the beginning of June, most people in Britain knew which neighbour they were going to visit to sit in their living room and watch the queen’s crowning. People who had televisions were prized.

And Charles’s television was assured.

But only for an audience of one.

Like The Wizard Of Oz, the cathode ray monster would only permit one person at a time to visit it. Today, 60 years ago, the smallest bedroom was crammed, wall to wall, with television. There would be no community cinema here, but a rotating audience of one.

His daughter still recounts, giggling, arriving with her little friends from along the street and asking her Daddy if they could watch the Coronation.

Naturally he said yes: but the tiny green glowing screen was so surrounded by tubes and valves and dials, that each little friend must potter in by themselves to watch a little bit of the Coronation, and then pass to another child.

But the television was still the wonder of the modern world. In wonder,on a very small greenish lit screen, each watched a small part of a ceremony hitherto rarely watched by commoners.

It all seems a lifetime ago. And it was: sixty years ago this very morning.


37 thoughts on “The Cathode Ray Creature

  1. I feel as ancient as that television. We had a television and I distinctly remember watching the coronation with the sort of fascination only a little girl can muster.

  2. I always feel your dad and mine had so much in common- we had a home-made TV (without any casing round it!) in the sitting room for years. It didn’t have a box because Dad was always tweaking something (often in the middle of a programme) and needed constant access!

    1. I have been telling the family about this all day, Jan. What an image; and of course access to all those valves and such would mean a box could only be a hindrance. Lovely image. Your Dad was such a star.

  3. How wonderful it would be to see a picture of that television filled room. I would have been 8 years old, at boarding school, and I have no memory of the Coronation whatsoever. We must have had a holiday or some celebration to mark it, but my memory stays stubbornly blank.

    1. Strange, isn’t it, Roger, what stciks and what doesn’t. I have very little memory of the whole Charles and Diana nuptials. Yet it was supposed to be huge. Ho hum.

  4. Oh my goodness! Doesn’t this take us back to childhood day. A lovely evocative post, Kate. Your father-in-law gave special meaning to the word “inventive.” Just lovely.

  5. I love the heft of it, though. The wood case and all that. There’s a sense of artistry to these old behemoths that is lost in today’s flat-screen reality.

    1. Andra, your comment is not only wonderful but has a distinct English accent today, if that makes sense. It’s a lovely case, that’s for sure: nicer than the sixties and seventies ones, though they are iconic in their own right.

      1. I spent part of yesterday interviewing a Rotary Scholar applicant who wants to spend a year in Leicester at university. Maybe I relived too much of my time in England for him….. πŸ˜‰

  6. Hats off to the normally unsung heroes who, like Charles, quietly got on with living their lives with ingenuity and imagination. Hats off to you, Kate, for singing their praises.

    Is this a suitable place to recall my own Coronation memories? Liz and My Part in Her Crowning I could call it. My parents (or at least my mother, I don’t recall my father being there) had taken me to what must have been The Mall. A long straight stretch of road anyway. The Queen came by in her coach. Everybody cheered and waved flags. “Where is she going?” I asked my mother. “Just down the road, round the roundabout and then back again,” I was told. Like the ignorant four-year-old I was then I believed her.

    She did indeed come back, but not straight away. We waited and waited. I remember a scuffle between a policeman and a woman shouting hysterically (not my mother, I hasten to add). Eventually the coach rolled past, exiting stage left. Took her time going round the roundabout, is all I can say.

  7. A wonderful character.
    My own father and his brothers were also people he would have got on well with. When they wanted things, they built them. One built a successful racing yacht, another an aeroplane, and my father one of the most powerful shortwave receivers of the time.

  8. OOPs, bad fingers on the board. Really enjoyed this and the ingenuity of your Father in Law is impressive. I recall the coronation barely, just a hazy memory for a 6 year old.

  9. How extraordinary. I hadn’t yet arrived on the scene at the time of the Queen’s coronation . . . which makes me feel positively youthful today! Thanks, Kate.

  10. What an amazing invention, Kate. I can almost sense the anticipation. The working against a very real deadline and then accomplishing this fabulous goal. Does it still exist? I suppose no one would want to give a full room to it, but I hate to think of it being dismantled. On the other hand, with such an inventor, I’ll assume the parts were all repurposed for other grand schemes!

    1. Charles was never sentimental about his things, Debra; and though I do not know what became of the telly, I’d hazard it was carved up to make something else as soon as it became obsolete. Charles was always scheming something. Even at teh end of his life, when he came to live in the house I am living in now, he converted a humble shed to a small tool-villa all his own.

  11. Can’t get more self sufficient than that πŸ™‚ What a remarkable man! The polished wood TV featured above is a beauty Kate. Reminds me of my grandfather’s gorgeous radio, that we were foolish enough to give away.

  12. What an amazing device your father-in-law built, and how remarkable that your sister-in-law can remember this. I truly admire these folks who conspire with ideas and bring such things about, Kate; to have one in your family is supreme.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Too young to remember the coronation, (gosh, that feels good to say) I do remember seeing the young Queen stopping by Chicago for a brief visit on our own television set with its tiny screen and huge wood cabinet, that followed us to the ‘burbs.

    1. She is the first truly televised monarch, Penny,a nd she has paid the price for it. Such unrelenting scrutiny has not always been kind. But she is resilient, and changes just enough to meet the expectations of her subjects. To the point of jumping out of a plane with James Bond πŸ˜€

  13. What a wonderful story, Kate. We didn’t have a telly, but I went round to a neighbour’s house to watch the coronation. Mom wore her best hat. πŸ™‚

    1. It was a best hat kind of day, wasn’t it? A chance to celebrate, not long after life had been unremittingly grim. Lovely to see there can be happy endings.

  14. Sorry, Can’t go back as far as the Coronation. My earliest TV recollections are Zoo Quest and I (along with a lot of others) have been watching that Attenborough bloke ever since πŸ™‚ We had a Pye in an upright floor standing cabinet sporting a 9 inch screen! The cabinet was actually rather nice and I regret that it was disposed of somewhere along the way.

  15. My Dad also made our first television set. But the one your father-in-law made sounds much bigger. Ours only took up a small portion of his workroom (formerly a bedroom).

    An impressive feat for both dads. Ingenious.

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