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Berlin Olympic Games on Television  August 1936

Given that the UK high definition television service did not officially start broadcasting until  the 2nd of November 1936 it could be claimed that Germany were the first in the world to launch a regular public service. It really all depends on how you define high definition.

At the time of the Olympics there were no television receivers on sale to the general public in Germany. Prior to the Olympic games the public could view television at seven public viewing rooms in Berlin and one in Potsdam. These were typically equipped with a number of domestic sized receivers with screen size 19 x 22 cm using a 180 line non-interlaced 25 Hz frame rate. The viewing rooms could seat between 30 and 40 people and the plan was for 25 such rooms and two theatres, one seating 100 and the other 300 people, to be available during the games and extending as far as Leipzig. A CRT projection system to be used in the smaller theatre and an intermediate film projector in the larger.

So how did the German system compare with the Marconi EMI system that was available to the public in August 1936 in the UK ?

A 180 line image of Test Card C:

The Telefunken receivers had an IF response giving 850 kHz video bandwidth which equates to a resolution similar to the middle of the 5 grating set in Test Card C.

Clearly the line structure of a 180 line picture is going to be more prominent than that of a 405 line picture.  (Running a 405 line set at 180 /25 Hz doesn't improve the linearity in either axis but it's not quite so obvious in the four 180 line screen shots from the Olympics below.)


A 405 line image of Test Card C:


Given the screen dimensions used in the German viewing rooms the difference in line count was probably not a big issue but the 25 Hz non-interlaced scanning would have given the same rather objectionable flicker that plagued the Baird system offering at that time. (The simulation below may not work well on some PCs depending on processor load. It can also take a few seconds to stabilise. It works better with display rate 50Hz or 75Hz rather than the usual 60Hz.)

However, if you were able to ignore the flicker and the Nazi propaganda, it wasn't too bad.


It is likely that the Nazi regime opted to go public with the 180 line system to be seen as world leaders in television but like others they were limited by camera technology.

Three types of television camera were used at the Olympic Stadium. Those manufactured by Telefunken used RCA iconoscope technology purchased under licence. Contrary to what is implied elsewhere on the web the iconoscopes used in these cameras were not the miniature super iconoscopes that were manufactured towards the end of WWII for use in television guided weapons. The Telefunken cameras in 1936 used a standard iconoscope of very similar construction to the then current RCA design and had a mosaic target 9 x 12 cm.


These cameras could have been capable of operating at the 441 line standard that was adopted a year or so later but they were supplying images for reception in the viewing rooms that were equipped with 180 line receivers, a standard compatible with the "purely German" technology of the Fernseh intermediate film camera, as shown below mounted on its film processing/scanning van that was also used at the Olympic Stadium. The third camera type was a much more portable device of the image dissector type also supplied by Fernseh AG but suffering from the light insensitivity and geometry problems common to this type.

Two Telefunken cameras provided a total of 29 hours of broadcasting. These cameras were located for the full 16 days in two largely fixed positions on the south side of the Olympic Stadium at track level.

A further iconoscope camera constructed by the German Post Office provided a total of 24 hours of broadcasting. This was located in the Swimming Stadium for the full 16 days.

The Fernseh intermediate film camera provided a total of 34 hours of broadcasting. It was located at the Marathon Gate between the Reich Sport Field and the May Field for the full 16 days..

The Fernseh image dissector camera provided a total of 19 hours of broadcasting.  It was located for 13 days in the Olympic Stadium and 3 days in the Dietrich Eckart Open Air Theatre.

Prior to the Olympics the Reich Broadcasting Company had delivered 2 hours of television per day between 8-00 pm and 10-00 pm. During the Olympics the broadcasting hours were extended to include transmissions between 10-00 am and 12-00 noon and between 3-00 pm and 7-00 pm. Some of this was live television coverage and some telecine from the film camera coverage.


Reporting in the Wireless World August 21st their correspondent was rather less than impressed with initial television coverage, the clarity being insufficient and the projection receivers being unreliable. The images from the iconoscope cameras were shadowy and distorted in the dull weather conditions. Those from the intermediate film camera were reported as quite clear and contrasty but accompanied by badly distorted sound, noting that its recording on the film suffered from the rapid development process.

As a response to the August report Manfred von Ardenne writing in the September 11th edition commented that "The quality of the "direct" television transmissions improved during the early stages of the Games almost from day to day, so that by about the middle of the Games, thanks to the accumulated experience in practical transmission technique, quite a useful picture quality was attained - not quite up to the standard of ordinary film transmissions but noticeably approaching this.

In order to have, in later days, an objective record of the results of the first official "direct" television transmissions using today's regulation 180 lines per picture, some characteristic fluorescent-screen images of the transmissions were photographed in the writer's laboratory. These are here reproduced without retouching."

The first image below was taken in cloudy weather with the iconoscope camera at the starting point in the swimming stadium just before the gun was fired, the others in the Olympic Stadium.  Admittedly the images are probably not enhanced by the magazine reproduction.



For an appraisal of the 1936 Olympics see: The 1936 Nazi Olympic Games   (It can be slow to load.)


Berlin Radio Exhibition

Just one month after the Olympic Games the Berlin Radio Exhibition displayed a variety of both 180 line / 25 Hz non-interlaced and 375 line / 50Hz interlaced receivers and Telefunken displayed the massive Olympia iconoscope camera alongside a much more portable 375 line camera.

It is clear from the presentations at the September exhibition that the major manufacturers were well advanced in the move to 375 line / 50 Hz interlaced technology. The use of the obsolete 180 line standard at the Olympics was probably attributable to various factors.

1. The conflicting needs of Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry and those of the television equipment manufacturers. (Mass v. domestic audience.)

2. The ideological difficulties of manufacturing a competent electronic camera from purely German development.

3. The very capable and well engineered German legacy of mechanical television systems.

4. The replacement of the fire damaged Witzleben / Funkturm transmitter with another of 180 line technology to be sure of readiness for the Olympics.

 At the exhibition most manufacturers showed domestic receivers displaying the 180 line transmissions from the Funkturm. Fernseh A.G. also showed 180 line images from the image dissector camera that had been used at the Olympics and also 375 line content generated by their Nipkow disc mechanical film scanner. The images from the latter were described as without equal at the exhibition in terms of detail, contrast and brightness although hole blockage did cause some horizontal black line problems. As well as their direct view CRT receivers they also displayed CRT projection systems but these were apparently very poor compared with the direct view sets, being dim and lacking in detail and half tones.

Telefunken, who of course had the benefit of the licenced RCA iconoscope technology, had both studio and outdoor cameras providing 375 line pictures on a number of domestic receivers that were judged to be extremely good with excellent interlacing although the horizontal definition was not as good as that generated from mechanical scanners. They also had projection displays. One showing 180 line standard 18" x 20" and a second showing 375 line on a display of 3ft x 3ft 6". The definition was judged to have suffered as a result of the projection but was seen as better than those of other manufacturers.

Loewe also displayed CRT 375 line receivers fed from mechanical scanning and these gave very bright pictures with plenty of detail and contrast. Their CRT projection displays of 16" x 20" were bright but lacking in detail.

Lorenz displayed a very compact receiver with a picture size of 7" x 9" receiving the 180 line transmissions from the Funkturm.

TeKaDe were the only manufacturer showing a mechanical receiver. This used a double spiral 180 line mirror screw projecting light from an arc lamp via a Kerr cell onto a 2ft x 2ft screen. It demonstrated the superiority of mechanical projection over CRT types both in terms of brightness and detail.