Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society

Dame Nellie Melba - GB90MZX, Chelmsford 2010

CARS Operating from Chelmsford using GB90MZX

Marconi were producing powerful transmitters in the early 1920s. In order to test them they were allocated the callsign MZX - Marconi Zulu X-ray. Tests for these transmitters were messages sent using Morse code and to test speech, anything that came to hand was read out including articles from newspapers and the Chelmsford Railway Timetable.

There were many hundreds of people who had purchased wireless sets left over from WWI and amateurs had constructed Crystal Sets.

Besides being very much “in the vogue to own a wireless receiver”, they were also very vocal in their letter writing to newspapers (which included the Daily Mail) to say they wished to hear something more stimulating from “MZX in New Street Chelmsford than Railway Timetables".

Marconi always had the ability to employ very talented personnel at all levels. Some of his staff agreed with the correspondence received at New Street and quietly discussed doing something to “liven it up a bit”. A number of the engineers associated with the transmitters took it in turns to sing and recite items more interesting than Railway Timetables during dinner times and early evening – latent theatrical ambitions, maybe.

This fuelled the letter writing even more. However the licence conditions imposed a maximum of half an hour per day to “testing on-air” – a severe limitation to the amateur broadcasters.

On the 15th January 1920, Mr W T Ditcham and Captain H J Round transmitted a programme of speech and gramophone music using a 6kWatt Transmitter on a frequency of 2750 metres. Again more letters were received which showed they could be heard up to 1500 miles away.

The next transmitter to test was 15kWatts on the 23rd February and the recitals continued until 6th March using the same call-sign and frequency.

W T Ditcham seated in front of the 15kWatt Transmitter in the Test Workshop.
The double doors and spares attached to the wall behind
were painted out before the photo was released in 1920

Dame Nellie Melba was approached as the leading opera singer of her time and agreed for a large sum of money (paid by the Daily Mail) to sing on the wireless. A figure of £1000 has been quoted – a lot of money in those days, bearing in mind you could purchase a London detached house for £500.

The test transmissions referred to above were all conducted from the Test House at the rear of New Street factory in a typical workshop environment - deemed not suitable for the Dame, so a long wire was laid out to a room at the front of New Street and used by Marconi. A microphone was connected - yes, you have guessed - when the transmitter was keyed - the microphone exploded and the wire feeding it burnt the carpets it was laid on. There was no way round - the Dame would have to sing from the workshop!

Peter Turrall, Chairman of the Marconi Veteran's association expanded the story on the 27th May 2010 when he presented "Marconi" to the Chelmsford Civic Society (and the Mayor). He said he interviewed Miss Sayer (later Mrs Collins) in 1985 when she told him she was paid 2/6d by Marconi to sing each evening for a week prior to the 15th June 1920 to enable the Engineers to adjust the transmitter in New Street. As so often happens with these events she was not allowed to meet the Dame.

Nellie Melba travelled by rail to Chelmsford First Class and met with a White Rolls Royce (her request) and driven a long way round to the Marconi New Street factory. A meal was provided, again at her request which included “partially cooked Chicken”.

Unfortunately the Transmitter was not tuning up as required so it was suggested that the Dame should take a short walk around the site. Pointing up to the wires suspended from the top of the two 450ft masts it was suggested that “from the top of the mast your voice will soon be heard throughout the World”. History records she said “Young man, if you think I am going to climb up there you are very much mistaken. I am Dame Melba”.

Dame Nellie Melba singing into the microphone with a shield cut out of a cigar box.
The photo had the background painted out before it was released in 1920

July 1920: Lauritz Melchior singing into the same microphone

Nellie Melba sang a rendering of "Home Sweet Home"; Nymphes et Sylvains" and the "Addio" from La Boheme for some 15 minutes or so and the transmitter had to be adjusted again so a break was suggested after which she did another series of songs.

The effect was electric. Reports were sent in from miles around – the furthest is thought to have been Iran (Persia in those days).

As this event was advertised in advance it is duly referred to as the “First live public entertainment Broadcast in the World by a celebrity”.

Broadcasting had started in earnest. For the next 5 months other distinguished singers were invited to Broadcast from the same make do studio.

In the July 1920 photograph of Lauritz, the background has NOT been painted out and it is possible to make out the sliding double doors which enabled railway goods wagons to enter the room to pick up the completed transmitters. W T Ditcham is seen leaning on the grand piano.

Lauritz's voice was very powerful and often used to overload the transmitter and cause it to fail.

Another photo of Lauritz Melchior singing into the microphone in July 1920.

The Postmaster General thought this entertainment was very trivial and when interference to the Aircraft Direction Finding service at Croydon Airfield (provided by Marconi) was reported, the MZX Licence was withdrawn from Marconi and was never used again.

Marconi DF Set

Croydon Airfield

What happened for the next 14 months before 2MT Writtle opened up is open to conjecture – transmitters must have still required to be tested – maybe using Morse only with another callsign.

The Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society (CARS) will commemorate this event and remind the public just how Broadcasting started in Chelmsford 90 years before by using the Special Call-sign “GB90MZX”.

Dame Nellie Melba Event - Saturday, 12th June from Oaklands Museum, Chelmsford.

Chelmsford Borough Council poster.
Reproduced courtesy of the Oaklands Museum Manager, Nick Wickenden.

Oaklands Museum, Chelmsford - with the new extension to the right.
The old Museum was built to look like Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

CARS transmitted from the Education Room in the new £5 million Oaklands Museum on Saturday, 12th June from 10am to 5pm using the Special Call-sign GB90MZX. They were supported by the Marconi Veterans Association, Friends of the Museum and Chelmsford Borough Council.

Peter Turrall, MBE (right) Chairman of the Marconi Veterans Association.

Trees at rear of Oaklands Museum where the wire aerial was erected.
Unfortunately there was a very high level of noise all across the Amateur Bands.

CARS provided one computer running a video of Carlos with the RSGB GB4FUN vehicle at Hylands Park with some of the 50,000 Scouts talking to the International Space Station a year or two ago.

At the other side of the room a continuous digital slide show told the story of Marconi and Dame Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie Melba story shown on the computer display system presented by the Friends of the Museum.

Colin G0TRM standing in front of his DVD playing songs performed by Dame Nellie Melba
and listened to on Infrared-linked headphones by a visiting family.

Members of the public were invited to make and receive greetings messages from other radio amateurs around the World. There were hosts in attendance which assisted the public and answered their questions and provide information.

Brian G3CVI and his replica 1920 microphone and the
working display of Morse Keys, Sender and Receiver by Colin G0TRM.

John Yates G1UZD holding the photo of Dame Nellie
and Peter Turrall MBE holding "her microphone"
Photo courtesy of the Essex Chronicle.

Dame Nellie Melba Event - Tuesday, 15th June from Central Chelmsford.

The Mobile Communication Centre was on-site a few yards away from the actual location used 90 years ago and ready to operate for Tuesday, 15th June using the Special Call-Sign "GB90MZX".

"MZX" was the Call-Sign Dame Nellie Melba used for her historic transmission on the 15th June, 1920 from New Street.

Mark standing infront of his Caravan at Marconi New Street works in Central Chelmsford

CARS was using 100 Watts while the Dame used 15kWatts; our Aerial was 45ft high while the Dame used 450 feet!

GB90MZX Operating Team:
Mark Sanderson M0IEO owner of the caravan (left); John Yates G1UZD Ex Marconi;James Beatwell 2E1GUA;
John Bowen G8DET CARS Chair; Colin Page G0TRM (ex Marconi) and Andy Emberton, BAE Systems Manager.

Photo by Ken Wilkinson using John G1UZD's camera.

The noise floor in central Chelmsford was quite low and all of Europe was worked.

Dave Hampton, visitor, using the Icom IC-756 transceiver to receive a Greetings Message.
Watched by James Beatwell 2E1GUA (logger) and John Yates G1UZD (opposite).
The computer is running Ham Radio Deluxe with a Internet connected Dongle to

Photograph by Ken Wilkinson.

BAE Systems visitor having a tune around
Photo by John G1UZD

Web sites:

Tim Wander, G6GUX has just written a book about this time and will be on sale from June 2010.   It is called “The Birth of British Broadcasting”.  

Written by John Bowen, with acknowledgements to:-

  • Peter Turrall, MBE
  • Nick Wickenden, Oaklands Museum Manager
  • Ms Laura Ketley, Chelmsford Borough Council
  • Andy Emberton, BAE Systems, Integrated System Technologies
  • Dr G Bowles, Keeper of Sandford Mill Science & Industry Museum
  • Oxford University – Marconi Collection
  • Tim Wander, G6GUX
  • Geoff Watts, G0EVW, Dorset

    Thanks also for the effort and kind help especially to those persons behind the scenes who are so necessary to the success of such an event.

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