British Broadcasting Company

The British Broadcasting Company Ltd was a British commercial company formed on 18 October 1922 by British and American electrical companies doing business in the United Kingdom. Licensed by the British General Post Office, their original office was located on the second floor of Magnet House, the GEC buildings in London and consisted of a room and a small antechamber. On 14 December 1922, John Reith was hired to become the Managing Director of the company at that address. The company later moved its offices to the premises of the Marconi Company. The BBC as a commercial broadcasting company did not sell air time but it did carry a number of sponsored programmes paid for by British newspapers. On 31 December 1926, the company was dissolved, and its assets were transferred to the non-commercial and Crown Chartered British Broadcasting Corporation.

Brief history

Post Office stations

In Britain prior to 1922, the General Post Office retained exclusive rights given to it by the government, to manage and control all means of mass communication—with the exception of the printed word for which authority had devolved to another governmental entity. The laws which evolved into the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1947, upon which all modern British communication laws are built in one way or another, concern four essential activities:
All four of these activities require a government licence which was originally granted by the General Post Office.

"Electrical" post offices

The invention of the electrical telegraph came under the control of the Telegraph Act 1869 which was based upon a law that forbade the encoding of electrical cables with messages without a licence. The messages were viewed as electrical forms of a letter. This invention was followed by the wireless telegraph which was then placed under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904.

Advent of wireless broadcasting

In the US, the development of the telegraph, wireless telegraph, telephone and wireless telephony proceeded according to the dictates of entrepreneurial commercial interests concerned only with supply and demand for profit. Beginning in August 1920, commercial broadcasting stations programming to the general public had begun broadcasting in the United States, licensed by the Department of Commerce and offering several hours of programming, usually at night. Two of the first stations were WWJ in Detroit and KDKA in Pittsburgh. These pioneering stations continue in daily 24-hour operation today under the ownership and management of CBS.
In the United Kingdom, all broadcasts were licensed by the GPO, who were reluctant to license any fully commercial stations and only 'experimental' stations were allowed on air.

First test broadcasts

Beginning in 1920, a number of licences were issued to British and American subsidiary companies in Britain for the purpose of conducting experimental transmissions under terms of a licence issued by the General Post Office in accordance with the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904. On 15 June 1920, Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, Limited, in Chelmsford, Essex, was licensed to conduct an experimental broadcast from the New Street Works factory, featuring Dame Nellie Melba. The signal was received throughout Europe and as far as Newfoundland, Canada. Further transmissions were also made.

Military intervention

On 23 November 1920, the General Post Office halted all further transmissions due to complaints of alleged interference with military communications. As the number of wireless receiving sets increased during the early 1920s, the General Post Office came under extreme pressure from hobby listeners to allow the experimental wireless broadcasts to resume.

Test transmissions resume

On 14 February 1922, which was two years after ceasing their original transmissions, the Marconi Company was issued a licence for experimental transmissions under the call sign 2MT. Peter Eckersley was given charge of providing both the broadcast entertainment and the engineering. The station operated out of a hut in a field at Writtle near Chelmsford.
On 11 May 1922, the Marconi Company was issued another licence for experimental broadcasts from a station identified as 2LO which was located at Marconi House in the Strand, London. The programme consisted of a boxing commentary of the fight between Kid Lewis and Georges Carpentier. Further tests were also advertised as demonstrations of "Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony" which were "subject to permission from the Postmaster General". These demonstrations were performed by the "Demonstration Department Marconi's London Wireless Station 2LO".
On 16 May 1922 the Metropolitan Vickers Company Ltd commenced test broadcasting from its own station in Manchester, identified as 2ZY.

A committee is appointed

On 23 May a committee of representatives was appointed from the "Big Six" companies – Marconi, Metropolitan-Vickers, Radio Communication Company, British Thomson-Houston, General Electric and Western Electric. The Post Office also pressed for the inclusion of a representative from the smaller firms manufacturing radio equipment in the UK – Frank Phillips of Burndept. George Campbell was one of the members on the committee.

Incorporation and shares

On 18 October 1922 the British Broadcasting Company Ltd was incorporated under the Companies Acts 1908 to 1917 with a share capital of £60,006, with cumulative ordinary shares valued at £1 each. No further capital could be issued without the Postmaster-General's consent:
The shares were equally held by six companies:
The shareholders gave the BBC the benefit of their respective patents, and only radio sets supplied by BBC companies were permitted to be licensed to receive programmes. The ability of the shareholders to profit from the BBC was limited as part of the agreement with the Postmaster General:


The initial remit of the British Broadcasting Company was to establish a nationwide network of radio transmitters many of which had originally been owned by member companies, from which the BBC was to provide a national broadcasting service.

International influences

The British Broadcasting Company was formed using a blueprint that the US Navy and the General Electric Company had attempted to institute in the USA. Early in World War I, all of the ship-to-shore and transatlantic radio stations controlled by a US subsidiary company of Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, Limited in Chelmsford, England, were seized and handed to the US Navy for the duration of the War. After the War, the US Congress forced the US Navy to divest itself of the stations and they turned to the General Electric Company which in 1919 formed a subsidiary called the Radio Corporation of America. With the US Navy on its board, RCA then absorbed the former Marconi stations. In 1926 RCA created the National Broadcasting Company, the first network in the United States. Peaking in the 1930s, there were attempts to bring all radio communications in America back under single monopoly control by using the patent laws. This move failed.
The Western Electric Company Ltd in the UK was originally formed as a subsidiary of American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the USA where it served as its manufacturing subsidiary to equip the AT&T Bell Telephone system.
The British Thomson-Houston Company Ltd was a controlled UK subsidiary of the General Electric Company in the USA. The Hotpoint Electric Appliance Company Ltd was formed by British Thomson-Houston in 1921.
The only other company later added to the original shareholders of the British Broadcasting Company Ltd was Burndept Limited. It represented the interests of over twenty small electrical manufacturers in the UK.


The British Broadcasting Company did not sell air time for commercials but its licence did allow for it to carry sponsored programming, and eight such sponsored broadcasts were aired in 1925. However, the main source of its income was from the sale of radio receiving sets and transmitters manufactured by its shareholding member companies as well as from a portion of the government licence fee that had to be purchased by BBC listeners.

1922–1926 BBC timeline