Milestone Recognizes Canada's Mountaintop TV Transmission

Learn about the history of the historic breakthrough

5 November 2010

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, the first such event to be televised, was seen live throughout Britain on the BBC and shown a few hours later on local television to her subjects in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. But the few Canadians in Vancouver, B.C., who saw it had to turn their antennas toward the United States. That’s because there were no TV transmitters in Western Canada. But a scant six months later, Vancouver’s first TV station, CBUT, hit the airwaves, transmitting its signals from Mount Seymour in North Vancouver. A ceremony is scheduled for 10 November to recognize that transmitter as an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing.

Televising the coronation to Canada was a massive undertaking. The BBC made film kinescopes of its broadcasts and began relaying them by Royal Air Force jet bombers—the first nonstop flights between the United Kingdom and the Canadian mainland—even before the ceremony ended. When the kinescopes arrived at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station Goose Bay, in Newfoundland and Labrador, they were transferred to Canadian jet fighters and flown to Montreal, which already had been linked by microwave to Toronto and Ottawa. The coronation was on the air in Canada less than four hours after it ended in London.

Kinescopes flown to Vancouver, though, took a detour following their arrival: Canadian Mounties escorted the films to the U.S. border and handed them over to the Washington State Patrol for delivery to KVOS in nearby Bellingham for that station’s inaugural broadcast the next day. There were few TV sets in Vancouver to receive it, however. Although a station in Seattle, some 120 kilometers south of Bellingham, had gone on the air in 1948, only a handful of homes located on Canada’s North Shore Mountains, the range overlooking Vancouver, could receive its signal, according to IEEE Senior Member Dave Michelson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

TRANSMISSION TALES
The establishment of a TV station in Vancouver was seen as an important contribution to Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity, Michelson says. “There was strong contemporary concern that Canadians needed to receive their news and entertainment from Canadian sources,” he says, “not just from the United States.”

Until then, the vast majority of TV and FM transmitters in Canada were located atop tall buildings within urban areas. The only VHF broadcast transmitters in Western Canada were for FM radio. Station CBU-FM, for example, broadcast from atop Hotel Vancouver.

The topography of British Columbia’s lower mainland required that considerable care be taken to choose a broadcasting site that would provide the best coverage. Predicting and evaluating the coverage of a VHF broadcast transmitter in such terrain is much different from the corresponding task for the FM transmitters that had been installed at various low-level locations in lower British Columbia during the 1930s and 1940s.

“For the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation managers of the day, establishing the network’s fourth television transmitter so far west and at a high elevation and a remote location was a bold and significant decision,” Michelson says. “CBUT was the first remote, high-altitude broadcast site in the CBC system.”

Mount Seymour was, in fact, the second site chosen, after CBUT had obtained permission to build on nearby Mount Burnaby. That proved a wise decision; a station built later on Mount Burnaby suffered from poor coverage, Michelson says, and was moved to Mount Seymour. Today, the transmitters of six TV and 16 FM stations are located there.

“The lessons learned on Mount Seymour were applied at the remote, high-altitude sites the CBC established later,” Michelson says.

The IEEE Milestone ceremony this month honors the Mount Seymour transmitter with the installation of a plaque on a wall near the main gate of the CBC broadcasting site. The plaque reads:

 

First television broadcast in Western Canada, 1953
On 16 December 1953, the first television broadcast in Western Canada was transmitted from this site by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBUT Channel 2. The engineering experience gained here was instrumental in the subsequent establishment of the more than one thousand public and private television broadcasting sites that serve Western Canada today.

 

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