The notorious Mr Babbage (part two)

Mr Babbage 2 – Les Dennis, live and in colour

In Part 1, we had got to the tenure of Max Bygraves as host, with a large matrix of lights keeping everything in order (let’s face it, he couldn’t). When Max finally bowed out of hosting Family Fortunes, the younger, brasher hosting of Les Dennis (if that’s not too much hyperbole) was matched with an equally young and brash display:

Aside from the now massive size of the screen, this is now a system clearly capable of a bit more than yellow on black. In fact, this is one of the first examples of the at one time ubiquitous Sony Jumbotron, the archetypal ‘big screen’ in 1980’s spec sporting arenas.

The original Jumbotron was debuted in 1985 at that year’s World’s fair, with the system being marketed as the best example of a non-projection large screen display with the originals measuring 40m x 25. The example here is nowhere near that size, which is as well given the colossal cost of putting such a display together.

In a Jumbotron, the screen behaves in a similar way to a standard cathode ray tube television, with red, green and blue phosphor elements excited by a scanning beam of electrons. However, instead of one piece of glass coated with lines of phosphor material, in this case each individual element was made up of multiple small CRTs, each covering a relatively small number of display pixels (16 at the most). The screen can then be produced row by row like a standard TV.

At the resolution and number of these in the display, the actual resolution would be below that of VHS, and with so many complicated components the likelihood of differences in brightness and total failure made such a device less than suited for the rigours of television production. It is no surprise therefore that there was a return to something simpler for later series (This example is from much later in the run, but this was pretty much in place from 1989 onwards).

At first glance, this looks similar to the original light network board from before, but the flickering is gone, and every piece of data seems to ‘wipe’ onto the board from left to right. This seems to be a more stable version of the original desk scoreboards from the Bob Monkhouse era, designed to run with less intervention and power.

The Ferranti-Packard ‘flip disc’ display is a simple single colour display system that works according to basic magnetic principles – each individual disc can be pushed around by the inbuilt electromagnet to face in one direction or the other, with either the ‘on’ or off colour displayed.

With this setup, if there’s no force to move the disc back to another state, it will stay in place, greatly reducing the power demands and the likelihood of failure (although the pixels may get ‘stuck’ from time to time). As the above clip shows, the system is still capable of some sort of animation if transitions occur quickly enough, but compared to the Jumbotron this is a far easier prospect to handle.

For a software simulation, try https://github.com/JakeWimberley/AniDot

No wonder it lasted beyond the end of Les’ tenure, only finally being replaced with a more modern video screen when the whole set was refreshed for Vernon Kay’s All Star series.

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