Interview Date: November 26, 2001
Interviewer: David Caldwell
Interview location: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Collection: Hauser Collection
CALDWELL: This is an oral history of Ken Easton, one of the early pioneers of cable television, not only in North American, but prior to that in England. Today is November 26, 2001 and we are interviewing Mr. Easton in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the studios of Eastlink, the company providing cable services to this, and many other communities in Nova Scotia, Canada. This interview is part of the Oral and Video History Program at The Cable Center in Denver, Colorado. I’m David Caldwell, Senior Director of Business Services at Eastlink. Ken, tell us about your background, when and where you were born.
EASTON: Well, I was born on August 1, 1916 in Harrow in the County of Middlesex, England. Harrow is a community on the outskirts of London, and as a matter of fact, since that time, the county of Middlesex, and with it, Harrow, has been incorporated into greater London. So I guess it’s fair to say I was born in London, England.
CALDWELL: What’s your family background? Tell us about what your parents did, and do you have any brothers and sisters?
EASTON: My father was a bank official, and was actually employed by an American company in their office in London, the Guaranty Trust Company of New York was the company he was with. My mother was a stay at home homemaker, which was pretty common in those days, even in today’s climate she wouldn’t have had time to do very much else because she in fact had six children in a period of ten years, of which I was the eldest. I had a sister and four brothers. That was the background in which I was brought up.
CALDWELL: Where did you go to school, Ken?
EASTON: Well, I went to school in Harrow. Harrow, incidentally, is the site of one of the famous upper crust English schools. It was in fact the school at which Winston Churchill, among many others, was educated; however I did not go to Harrow, the school. I went to school in Harrow. As was common in those days, I did five years in the equivalent of high school, going into high school at the age of 11, and graduated from high school just before I was 16. I actually finished school in June of 1932, and I wasn’t 16, of course, until that August. And then after that, I did not go beyond that. For example, in this day and age I would have gone on to university, but in England in those days there wasn’t the facility for going on to university as there is now, and certainly not for engineering. Only about 5% of high school leavers went to university in those days, and they were mostly youngsters who were going in for medicine, the law, or the classics. There was very little opportunity for engineering study in universities before the war. So in actual fact I left school, as I say, just before I was 16, got my first job two months later in September of ’32, and I then started a course of after school evening classes, and I studied engineering for five years at evening classes while I was doing a full time job during the day.
CALDWELL: So I take it even as a very young man you were interested in the technical side of life.
EASTON: Yes, yes. I can’t be very specific. I didn’t in those days have a particular interest, surprisingly, in electrical things. I was interested in mechanical things and I know one of my main interests in those days, indeed one of my hobbies when I had any time for it, was model building. I was keen on building model railroad equipment, ships and so forth, and it’s rather interesting that that was my hobby in those days, and my main interest. I had to drop it for many years through my career, mainly for lack of time, sometimes lack of opportunity, but since I’ve retired I’ve taken it up again, and it is now my retirement hobby, and a very good hobby too for retirement, I can tell you.
CALDWELL: So in 1932 you left the world of formal learning and began work. What was your first job and how did that progress?
EASTON: Well, the first job I went to in September of 1932 was as an electrical tester. I joined a company who were making small to medium sized electrical motors, and my job as a tester was at the end of the production line to take these motors off of the production line and run them through a series of tests to prove that in fact they were doing what they were supposed to do before they were sent out. It was an interesting job and it taught me quite a lot. One of the things it certainly taught me, for example, was the use of the slide rule, which was the dominant means of calculation in those days, long before calculators, and I was with that company until April of 1933, when I obtained entry to the post office engineering department through a very good friend of mine, whose father was chief engineer at that time, so we pulled a few strings. I started with the post office engineering department as a youth in training. That is what now would be called an apprentice, I guess, it was what the post office called their apprentices, a youth in training, and I was posted to the post office research branch in London, which is an establishment which still does, and did then, a major amount of research and development in just about anything in the communications field: telephone, telegraph, and radio. They had a radio branch as well, and I went through that whole mill as a youth in training doing everything from cable testing, to chemical analysis, to physics work, to switching design and switching development and so forth. And then in 1935, I guess, I was upgraded from youth in training to what the post office called an unestablished skilled workman, and I gradually worked up to the grade of skilled workman class one by the time I left the research branch.
CALDWELL: So the British Post Office was the operator of the telephone system in England at the time.
EASTON: Oh, yes.
CALDWELL: And they were also involved in radio distribution?
EASTON: They were involved in all communications, yes. Primarily telephone and telegraph line communications. They were, if you want to compare, sort of the Bell of England, and they also did radio as well. They were operating some of the long wave cross Atlantic radio stations, which were the only trans-Atlantic communication at that time, before the first coaxial cables were put in.
CALDWELL: So while you were learning in a practical sense in the post office, you were also working towards your engineering degree at the same time?
EASTON: Yes, every night, six nights a week, for five years, and as a result, eventually, in April of 1937, I finished my studies and I achieved what was then called the High National Certificate of Electrical Engineering, which is approximately equivalent to a Bachelor of Engineering degree issued by a university. It wasn’t a degree as such, but it was a national qualification. So, by 1937 I’d done a fair amount of practical training with the post office in communications work, quite a variety of communications work, and I had my qualification for academic study.
CALDWELL: So with that learning, how did you become involved in what we would today refer to as the cable industry?
EASTON: Well, that came sometime later, actually. In fact, in May 1939… 1938, I think, actually, I took a competitive examination in the post office for the grade of inspector. Inspector is the lowest of the executive grade in the post office. I won this competition and in April, 1938, I started training as a probationary inspector. This involved a number of courses, which I took at Doles Hill, which is the location of the research station, but also they have a training center there. And then in July of 1939, I was transferred to the southwest region of England, of the post office in England, to Tonton, in Somerset, to one of the regional headquarters to continue training out in the field, and it was there that I did a fair amount of field training on the practical aspects of communications, such as cable installation, maintenance, switching equipment maintenance, and that sort of thing. And I was there in Tonton when the war started, the first war started, in September of 1939, and I carried on there doing this training through the whole of that winter, the winter of ’39, until April 1940, which was the time of Dunkirk and the fall of France, and the imminent threat of invasion of England, and I was transferred back to London to join a group which had been set up at headquarters called the War Group. The job of the War Group was to provide all the line communications required by the fighting services and to maintain those communications. The latter, of course, was almost the more important part of it in that state, because there was substantial damage of course, due to air raids, and so forth, not only in London, but in many of the major cities in England, and part of the job I had was to go out to these places and supervise the restoration of communications after air raid damage. By restoration of communications, I mean, primarily, services communications, and that of course meant putting cables back into operation which were carrying commercial traffic as well. So that occupied me from 1940 until about 1943. In 1943, we started – without really knowing it of course at the time – we started the planning for communications required for D day. We didn’t know at that time it was going to be D day of course, but we knew sometime we had to get across the channel and this required all kinds of special communications and we spent about 18 months in the war group doing all the planning an provision required for that. And then immediately before D day, in June 1944, I was posted at the south coast and I was actually in charge of a terminal on the south coast at which was located the radio facilities required for the naval attacks on D day, for the landings, and not only the British services, but also the Americans. The Americans had substantial radio communication facilities, and my responsibility was to make sure of the connection between those radio facilities and the land lines, and to make sure that they stayed connected, and so forth. That happened on and around D day; I was there actually most of the next six or nine months, right into early 1945, including establishing… by the time the force had moved up the coast towards Cherbourg, the Navy was then able to place some submarine cables and my responsibility then was to ensure the connection of those submarine cables to the land lines on the English side, for which purpose we had a submarine terminal not far from Newhaven, which is west of Dover. And as the forces moved up the coast on the French side, so I moved up with them ensuring their communications back to headquarters and so forth. That went right through until VE day, the end of the war in Europe, when all that of course was no longer required, and at that point I was transferred to another branch of the lines group in engineering headquarters, which was concerned with the provision and maintenance of coaxial carrier systems, and that was my first contact with coaxial. I had nothing to do with coaxial all this previous history because there wasn’t any coaxial in use for the communications system as a whole, but we at the post office were starting to place a number of coaxial carrier systems, multi-channel carrier systems, throughout England to supplement the backbone network, and the job I had then was concerned with the design and installation and the maintenance of these systems. So that really gave me the first insight into coaxial and what it was and what it did and so forth, and then I did that for about two years, until June of 1947, by which time I was getting pretty fed up with employment at the post office. It was a civil service job and had all the problems involved in civil service employment, and so forth, and I decided I wanted out, and I actually answered an ad and was accepted for a job with Rediffusion, and Rediffusion at that time, was one of the few major companies in England doing radio relay. There was a special reason why I was particularly adept for this job: radio relay – first of all, I should say that radio relay is a method used of distributing radio programs by cable.
CALDWELL: Now, that’s interesting. It’s something that we’re not familiar with in North America. Can you fill us in a bit about how radio relay came to be in England and what created it?
EASTON: Well, radio relay started in England back in the early ’20s. Rediffusion, in fact, was formed about 1925, and it was formed to install and operate radio relay systems. There had been radio relay prior to that in some parts of Europe. There were radio relay systems in Germany, some in Russia, some in Switzerland, some in Sweden. They all used the same principle: the radio programs were received at what today we would call a headend, demodulated audio, and then distributed on the cable at audio, not at high frequency as we do cable.
CALDWELL: So the very first cable systems that we can think of were not really for TV, but rather for distribution of radio programming.
EASTON: Oh, no. There was no television then. There was no television even in the United States at that point, and I’m talking about before the war, in the ’20s and early ’30s. These were essentially cable systems which distributed audio programs received from broadcast stations by cable. The cable was not coaxial, the cable used was multi-pair, generally what we called a quad cable, which was two pairs in quad formation, in star formation, and the pair would be formed by the two opposite wires in each pair. There was a very good reason, too, for the popularity of radio relay in England, particularly at that time. Radio receivers, which were becoming fairly plentiful at that point, were crude, quote unquote, in the extreme. They used vacuum tubes and the vacuum tubes were powered by batteries. You’d have a wet acid batter for the filament supply, and then some dry batteries for the HD supply, and for good bass. And these were fine, but they were a damn nuisance, you had to keep recharging the wet batteries and replacing the other batteries and so forth, and eventually powered radios were introduced. This would have been around, oh, the late ’20s.
CALDWELL: And I suppose homes weren’t widely powered in some parts at that time either.
EASTON: Well, it’s significant that Rediffusion, among other companies, and there were other companies in this at the time, but Rediffusion was by far the largest – Rediffusion, for example, at the beginning of the war, had over 900,000 subscribers to radio relay, and most of their success and most of their radio relay activity was located in industrial centers: places like Newcastle, Tyneside, South Wales, Merthyr, Swansea. These were all industrial areas, what in those days we used to call working class areas. They had no power. The homes used to be heated by coal and the lighting was provided by town gas, coal gas, generated locally in coal fired generators, and there was no electricity at all. So these battery-less radios, which we’d use, couldn’t be used in those areas, and that’s why in those areas thousands and thousands of homes connected to cable, to radio relay.
CALDWELL: So it provided both convenience, to the people in not having to be fiddling with batteries and recharging them, as well as saving them money.
EASTON: Those were generally cheaper, and more effective, that’s right. And so, anyway, I was getting around to why I was hired for Rediffusion in London. Radio relay cables could not be installed as we install cables here, on poles. In England, particularly in those times, there were no overhead distribution systems, either power or telephone, they were all buried, all underground, and it was terribly expensive, of course, to go along and cut everything up in order to bury radio relay cables. So the way in which the cables, the radio relay subscribers were served, was to run the cables along the homes, under the eavesdrops, and most of the homes, in those days particularly, were terrace houses, they weren’t single family dwellings, they were rows of terrace houses, and it was fairly easy to run a cable along under the eavesdrops for a distance of ten or twelve homes, or whatever, and then way leaves would be provided to get across streets by overhead lines, again, not using poles, they’d be run from house to house across the road. Anyway, Rediffusion took over a company at the end of the war, in 1955, a company called Radio Furniture and Fittings, which had been set up before the war to provide high class radio facilities in blocks of apartments in London, high class blocks of apartments, where money was no object and they wanted the best of everything. Rediffusion took this company over and decided that they were going to expand radio relay into this area in London. Unfortunately, the apartments served by this system were scattered, they were just blocks of apartments, here, there, and everywhere, they weren’t bunched together, and it would have been impossibly expensive to dig up roads to put cables down to serve them. It also was not possible to run eaves top to eaves top, as you could in private homes. So what they wanted to do was to serve these apartments by post office line, post office cable. So they would rent music grade lines from the post office, from the central office where the headend was, out to these various apartments. But the apartment buildings were so scattered that it would have required a tremendous amount of line plant, particularly coming out of the headend to serve all these. So they decided the only way to do it was to take groups of apartments, take a central one, treat it as a repeater station, put an amplifier in there, run lines from the headend out to that apartment and then go spread out from there. That was the beginning of what today we call the system…
CALDWELL: Master antenna type systems?
EASTON: That’s right, yes, yes. And the reason I was hired for the job was because with my post office experience, I knew all about post office lines, how to deal with them, how to deal with the post office, and so forth. So literally my job to start with was to set up this network of post office lines across the whole of central London, feeding all these various apartment blocks, but I actually took charge of it. I was hired as chief engineer and took charge of the complete operation.
CALDWELL: Very interesting.
EASTON: And really, it was that which gave me my first contact with coaxial cable as we know it, television cable, because this company that Rediffusion took over were also providing television facilities in these blocks of apartments and they were doing it by installing what we now call Master Antenna Systems. An antenna on the roof with a single powered amplifier and then cable all around the building, and the cable was coaxial, and that was distribution of television at the originated frequency over coaxial cable, just like we do it now.
CALDWELL: So England was a very early pioneer in the television industry, had done some work in that prior to World War II, and began in earnest immediately after the war.
EASTON: Yes, television started in England in 1936, three years before the war started, closed down at the beginning of the war. There was only one channel, a BBC channel, broadcast from Alexandra Palace, which was an old exhibition site in London, in north London, and that closed down of course at the start of the war, and reopened again later in 1945 after the war finished, but for some years that was the only television station there was. It wasn’t practical in those days, even if they were available, to get program broadcasts from the continent, and the BBC only had the one transmitter. So, it was very basic cable television, but it was still cable television as we know it today.
CALDWELL: Ken, can you tell us about how the cable system then developed in London, and perhaps in England as well, from that first start in master antenna systems?
EASTON: Well, the interesting thing is that although at that point, as I had explained, I had had some experience with coaxial in these apartment systems, my first experimenting with cable television was in carrying television programs on paired cable, the kind of cable which we were using for radio relay, and it started, as a matter of fact, at an installation called the London Clinic, which is a very high class nursing home in the west end of London, which Rediffusion had wired some two or three years before for radio relay, wired with four pair cable, and they were anxious to put in television facilities. They had patients coming in bringing television sets with them and wanting to look at television while they were in there, and so forth. They were also interested in the possibility of acquiring some television sets for rental to patients. So, they approached London Rediffusion, and actually approached me, and asked whether it would be possible to install television. Well, it would have been nicely possible if we could have put a coaxial cable system in there, but I was very much aware of the fact that when the original radio system was introduced and installed, London Rediffusion had a heck of a job putting it in because they wouldn’t allow any external wiring, everything had to be hidden, and it was a real job to put it in and to meet those terms, but they did it. The question was then, were we going to have the same thing putting in coaxial cable? Were we going to have to duplicate the whole of the existing network with hidden cable, and so forth? In pondering the problem, I came to the conclusion that it ought to be possible to distribute the television over the existing cable, the existing radio relay cable, particularly as the relay service in the building was a three-channel, three-program, service. It used four pair cable, and one pair of the cable throughout the building was therefore not being used. So, I decided to experiment with using this pair for distribution of the television program, which was only a single channel, and it worked. It then involved a lot of work designing tap offs and splitters and so forth suitable for this cable, because it’s quite different from using coaxial, but eventually, we did in fact get the system operating. We installed television, I think, to about fifty or sixty rooms, and met the requirements, and it was that really that started the thirst, I might almost say, by Rediffusion to expand television over other areas of the country as and when television became available. This was in 1950-ish, and shortly after that, the BBC opened their second transmitter in the mid-lands, and there was then a clamor for television facilities in many of the big cities in the mid-lands, like Manchester, Nottingham, and so forth, and there was a lot of pressure to try to do in these cities on the radio relay networks what I had done in the London Clinic, and we did have some success with it, but it was much more difficult because of the greater expanse of cable involved and all the kinds of problems that came up susceptible to weather. We found very quickly that this cable was susceptible to weather conditions, to dirt deposits on the cable, to rain, and so forth, and the losses would vary and the impedances would vary on the cable according to the weather conditions outside, and so forth. But anyway, we did do quite a bit of expansion along those lines using radio relay cable to distribute television.
CALDWELL: So a good business model for Rediffusion to use its facilities already deployed for radio relay.
EASTON: Of course.
CALDWELL: I suppose they had an opportunity to have some savings in the television set cost?
EASTON: Oh yes, because a feature of the television systems installed by Rediffusion in those days was – and in this way they were distinct from cable television as we know it now. Cable television, as we know it now, of course, distributes the broadcast programs at broadcast frequencies, or at least at VHF frequencies, to standard television sets, using the standard television tuner, and as long as you keep within the confines of the channels available, that was fine. We didn’t do that in England. In England they still stuck to the radio relay principle. The radio relay principle is you save a lot of money, both capital costs and maintenance, by taking as much as you can out of the subscribers’ equipment. That’s why radio relay was so successful, because the subscribers’ equipment consisted only of a loudspeaker, a volume control, and a switch. Very low maintenance, much lower cost, it was cheap to the subscriber, and that’s how it was done, and audio of course went into the subscribers premises and was picked up by the loudspeaker. Rediffusion tried to adopt the same principle for television, and instead of having a standard television receiver in the subscribers’ home, they introduced what were called terminal units. First of all, the distribution was not done at VHS or broadcast frequencies; the received channels were converted down to much lower frequencies of the order of 10, 20, 30 megahertz, down in that band. The receivers were designed to receive those frequencies. They didn’t include a frequency changer or high frequency amplifiers; they didn’t have any audio, because the audio was distributed at audio on radio relay principles, and it simplified the design of a television set considerably, and therefore the cost, and was popular.
CALDWELL: This made it much more affordable to people who were struggling as the economy was recovering at the time.
EASTON: That’s right, that’s right. But in that respect, it did differ from cable TV, or CATV, as we know it here in North America.
CALDWELL: So when did you come to Canada?
EASTON: I came to Canada in November of 1953. At that time, my interests had been transferred sort of out of London proper, into England as a whole, and I was acting as consultant and advisor to regional engineers across the country on the design and installation of these cable systems, and also we were doing a very big business in renting these terminal units, and we had a substantial business involved in maintaining them. We had to do maintenance of all these units because they weren’t standard television receivers so we had to provide our own maintenance facilities and so forth. Then in 1949, Rediffusion started the design of a system in Montreal, Canada. They started the design actually… what they wanted to do is they wanted to expand radio relay into Canada. They already had radio relay facilities in some of the colonies of that time, and they wanted to expand into Canada, and they chose Montreal as the place to do it. Mainly, I think, because the high density housing in Montreal is such that it is very close in economics and so forth, and general design, to a situation in England, where you have high density housing. In England it was row housing, in Montreal it was tenement housing. But they started radio relay in Montreal. And this was in 1949, and they did a substantial amount of construction of radio relay, and then in 1950, late ’49 or early ’50, it was learned that the CBC were planning to start a television service in Canada, and they were planning to open their first station in Montreal, and it was obviously expedient from a business point of view, certainly, that Rediffusion should follow the trend if they were going to be in the business of distributing broadcast programs throughout Montreal, it better be television and not much radio, or the business would collapse. So, they then started the design of a television system specifically for Montreal. They did not design a system along the lines of the ones which I was using in England, using the radio relay cable. The main reason for that was because the situation in Montreal, or typically in North America is such that you’ve got a lot of broadcast and other radio facilities on the air, and the amount of interference likely to be generated in balanced pair cables was going to be unacceptable. So it was decided that the system would have to be a coaxial system, but the only coaxial cable available at that time was braided copper, and braided copper wasn’t good enough for this purpose. And so a special cable was designed for the Montreal system, and the special cable used a solid aluminum sheath, and that cable was designed and manufactured specifically for the system which Rediffusion installed in Montreal. As you know, it’s since become the standard across North America for cable TV, but it started in Montreal with a Rediffusion system.
CALDWELL: And this system was designed at the onset to be a very large system?
EASTON: Yes, yes it was. It was designed; actually it was designed initially as a two-channel system to serve a fairly large area. In fact, by about – let’s see – well, the system actually was the first cable TV counted system in operation in Canada because it actually started as a CATV system on September the 6th, 1952, which was the date the CBC opened CBFT, the first transmitter in Montreal, and the cable system was ready then to carry, that day, and did. The cable system had been operating before that for a period of six to nine months, but there were no broadcast signals to carry, not even from the States. There were no American transmitters at that time within receivable distance in Montreal. So, what Rediffusion did was to build a studio. They built a studio equipped with a film chain slide projector facilities and for about five or six hours a day, over a period of about nine months, they distributed programs to the subscribers consisting of film almost entirely in French – French movies, news reports, and talking head programs. So, Montreal – Rediffusion in Montreal – in fact was not only the first cable system to be operating in Canada, it was also the first cable system in North America to originate its own programs.
CALDWELL: So a number of firsts for that system.
EASTON: Oh yes.
CALDWELL: As cable began in much of North America it was really a phenomena of small towns who were remote from major metropolitan areas. Yet, this system began in the heart of the major metropolitan area in Canada.
EASTON: Which is one of the reasons why up until 1985 (Editor’s note: the correct year is 1975), when Home Box Office first distributed programs by satellite, up until that time, or certainly up until 1980, anyway, ’75 I think Home Box Office was, up until about 1980, American cable was essentially a small market phenomenon. It was serving remote places which were remote from any of the broadcast stations in operation, and has stayed that way, partly because of an FCC requirement which forbade anybody from bringing in what were called distant stations. Distant stations were stations which were not licensed to serve that particular area. Of course when satellite came in, the whole distant station idea just went flat. There was no such thing as a distant station with satellites because they can be received anywhere, and that’s when the big push for franchises in big cities in the United States started, in 1980, and built up from there. Until then, American cable TV was a small town phenomenon. In Canada, on the other hand, where it was started in a big city like Montreal, and we had something like, by about 1954, the Rediffusion system in Montreal was passing something like 80,000 homes. It wasn’t a small system by any means, even by today’s standards, but then it carried on from there, and partly for that reason, in Canada cable did develop as a large city phenomenon, and as you know, we had most of the big cities wired here in Canada before they really even got around to it in the United States, for that reason.
CALDWELL: So the Montreal system began with customized terminals, or did it use standard…?
EASTON: Yes, it started with terminal units, and that became a problem too, because it started with one channel, CBFT, which was the first CBC transmitter, which opened in September, 1952. The CBC opened a second transmitter in Montreal, CBMT, the following year, and Rediffusion carried that, was required to carry it, as a matter of fact, and they only had two channels available. It was designed as a two-channel system. So, up until the time CBFT went on the air, Rediffusion was carrying these locally produced programs and they were very popular. Many subscribers were connected just to get these programs. Television was something new in those days; it didn’t matter where it came from. You could produce it out of a local studio out of a hatbox and people would watch it. And then, of course, when CBFT went on the air, that was broadcast television and it was CBC, but it was the only channel available. That on one channel of the system with the locally produced programs on the second channel was the offering for the next nine months or so, until the second CBC channel came on the air. That was required to be carried, so then Rediffusion had to take off their locally produced programs and they had CBFT on one channel and CBMT on the other, two channels. That was the point at which people started to get itchy, because by that time they’d seen enough television, and also seen programs which were being re-broadcast from American sources that they were aware of what was available a bit over the border and they started wanting more. It was about 1954 or early ’55 that the first two American channels, the first two American transmitters, became available across the border in Montreal. One was in Poland Springs, Maine, the transmitter on the top of Mt. Washington, and the other was in Plattsburgh, New York. They could be received in Montreal with a good antenna just, but with a good headend antenna; we could receive them and transmit them. We could carry them on cable, but we only had two channels available and we had to go through all kinds of technical shenanigans to add first one, two, and then three channels to the system.
CALDWELL: I understand Montreal’s system was one of the first to have, in effect, a set top box to be able to select stations.
EASTON: Yes, that was because that was the means by which we were able to receive and to distribute these two American stations became available. We didn’t have the channels on the cable because they were occupied with the two CBC programs and we were almost dared to take those off. So, we did all kinds of design work to receive the American channels and transmit them at a higher frequency and then use a set top box to get them on the terminal units.
CALDWELL: Early on, you were also involved in some of the first pay TV experimental and first introductory systems. Can you tell us some about that?
EASTON: Yes, while I was with Rediffusion in Montreal during that period, I was regularly attending the conventions of the NCTA down in the States, and it became apparent that a lot of work was going on on pay TV development. I think the first system that I saw was an experimental system which was installed near Tulsa, in Oklahoma. It was a system installed by a company who operated the movie theaters in the community, and they wanted to be able to provide these movies in the home, sort of television in the home, and they installed this system and technically it was quite successful. Commercially it was successful, except that they had to rent their lines from the local telephone company and they jacked up their prices and it got to the point where it just wasn’t feasible, and they backed out of it, but that was almost the first system. In the meantime, Paramount Pictures were doing experiments out in California with a system which they called Telemeter, and this was… well, they started this; they were working on it for some years. This was a system which used coin boxes as the means of collecting the money.
CALDWELL: So a coin box would be installed in the home by the set?
EASTON: Yes, yes, and the money was collected regularly by collectors who went around on a regular basis. The reason for the coin boxes was the fact that Paramount, who of course was primarily a movie company, was sold on the fact that you couldn’t sell entertainment by credit. Nobody had ever successfully sold entertainment by credit. It was a cash and carry thing. You went to a movie theater, you paid your cash, and you went in. You didn’t do it by credit card or anything like that, even if credit cards were available in those days. They were convinced that entertainment had to be sold on a cash basis, and therefore the system, the Telemeter system, designed by their people in Los Angeles, was based on cash connection. This was the Telemeter system, and I first saw that system, I guess, around 195…, late ’50s. It was still under development. They did an experiment, they built an experimental system in Palm Springs, California, which technically was successful, but they came up against problems, objections from local theater owners, who refused to provide movie material and so forth, and eventually closed it down. Eventually they decided that the way to do this experiment was to do it in Canada, and Paramount, in those days, were 51% owners of Famous Players, which is a Canadian Corporation, as you know. But it was 51% owned in those days by Paramount Pictures. Paramount later sold out to Gulf & Weston, but Paramount decided that the way to proceed with this experiment was to do it in Canada in conjunction with their partners, Famous Players. They did eventually build the system in Etobicoke, Toronto, which was used as an experimental system and ran as an experimental system from 1960 to 1965, and technically was highly successful, commercially was highly successful, but they finally closed it down in 1965 because it was costing a lot of money to produce special programs which were not available. We did a lot of specials, staged in Toronto for that purpose. We did things like… we carried the away games of the Maple Leafs hockey team when they were playing in Chicago and Detroit, and so forth, all of which was done by camera crews sent out from Toronto, so it was an expensive operation.
CALDWELL: So this was conducted as a market trial.
EASTON: It was conducted primarily as a market trail, yes. The technical development was done by Paramount in California.
CALDWELL: So was the cable system in Etobicoke built specifically for the pay TV, or was it added to a cable system that was under construction there?
EASTON: No, no, it was built specifically as a cable TV system for the Telemeter experiment. The main reason for that was in those days, and I’m talking now about 1960, it opened in 1960, it was designed in 1958-59, in those days, Toronto was not a CATV market. There were a lot of people in Toronto looking at American channels coming from Buffalo, but they were reasonably well received on a domestic antenna, and there was no real incentive to pay somebody to distribute them by cable, so Toronto was not at that point a CATV market. Consequently, the system which was designed and built in Etobicoke, was designed specifically to carry these closed circuit programs for Telemeter on a pay basis. Only later – it was originally closed down in 1960 as a pay TV operation, but it was then that I was instrumental in developing Toronto as a CATV market, and it was based partly on the network which we’d used for Telemeter, but it was based mainly on the fact that at that time, there were two things that happened. Around 1965, there was a lot of high rise construction going on in Toronto. Many of the big downtown skyscrapers, which exist now, were going up I that period around ’64, ’65, ’66, and there were many high rise buildings going up out in the suburbs too, high rise condominiums and apartment buildings, and these, as you know, interfere with off-air reception, especially from places like Buffalo, which were 50, 60, 70 miles away. You couldn’t get decent reception with a rabbit ear, you had to have a good outside antenna, and even then it was a bit dicey, but what really capped it was in 1962, I think it was, the CRTC allowed Canadian broadcasters to go to color. Up ’til that point, broadcasting here had been entirely in black and white, and as you know, as an engineer, receiving black and white and receiving color are two different things.
CALDWELL: So the demands of color…
EASTON: The demands of color plus the confusion of all the high rise buildings made some sort of a cable system in Toronto almost mandatory, and that’s how cable started in Toronto.
CALDWELL: You were also a founding member of the Canadian Cable Television Association. Can you tell us about that organization and the role that you played in its operation?
EASTON: Well, as I said, in the early years, I and many of my colleagues in the cable business here attended conventions in the States of the NCTA, which had been formed by that time. The NCTA were beginning to get into the political field with regulations by the FCC and so forth. We, in our turn, were getting into problems here with threatened regulation by the government. At that time, the regulating authority, if you can call it regulation, was the Department of Communications, and their regulation was very minor, mostly of a technical nature, but in 1968, or before 1968 the Board of Broadcast Governors was formed, and later of course, the CRTC was formed with the Broadcasting Act of 1968, but moanings were becoming quite loud about regulation, what they were going to do to restrict all this flood of American programming coming in across the border, thanks to cable television. You know, we were blamed for it all, no question about whether the public wanted it or not. But we were a threat. We were a threat to the Canadian private broadcasters and so forth. And it became obvious that we had to have some kind of an organization here in Canada able to deal on the political level as well as the technical level as they were doing in the States. So, in 1957 a group of us got together and decided to set up a Canadian cable association, which was the beginning of the CCTA. It wasn’t called the CCTA in those days because we actually wanted to call it the National Cable Television Association of Canada. When it came down to getting a corporation, the Department of Communications in particular, or it was the Department of Transport then, objected. They didn’t like… the implication was that we were serving receivers through broadcast means. They didn’t like community television. Community television to them were low power re-broadcasters. So they insisted on the word antenna being in there, and we finished up incorporating as the National Community Antenna Cable and Television of Canada – thoroughly wordy – and it wasn’t until about seven or eight years later that the CCTA got around to re-incorporating as the CCTA and cutting out the antenna bit and the national and so forth.
CALDWELL: Regulations aren’t always as helpful as they’re intended.
EASTON: They weren’t in those days. They made life difficult very often.
CALDWELL: You were also involved in the early establishment of the CRTC, or the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, as I understand. Can you talk about your involvement as CRTC got setup after 1968?
EASTON: Well, when the cable association was inaugurated in 1957, we elected a board of directors and I was elected as secretary on the board, rather reluctantly because it was a part time job and I had my own job to do anyway, but anyway, I had a lot to do with the setting up of the association and drafting of its rules and so on, and they decided that I should be elected secretary and I was in fact secretary from that point until… I finally resigned as secretary, I think, in 1978, something like that. Anyway, I was secretary, and let’s see, what was your question?
CALDWELL: You had involvement with the CRTC in its founding.
EASTON: Oh, yes. As secretary, I was also involved in the setting up of a group, which we had, consisting of myself, and the president of the association, and several of the board members to negotiate with the government on the terms of any regulations that they wanted to bring in, and we knew was coming in, and we had many discussion with the minister of transport, the minister of revenue, and others, on these regulations. Finally they setup the BBG first. We were not regulated by the BBG. The BBG, when they setup, were setup as the commission to regulate broadcasting.
CALDWELL: So BBG was Bureau…?
EASTON: Board of Broadcast Governors. They were setup under the 1958 Broadcasting Act, and they were setup to regulate broadcasting. At that time, cable was not considered as part of broadcasting. That had its advantage; it had its disadvantages too. But anyway, during this period between 1958 and 1968, the government got into all kinds of discussion as to whether they should… they were under pressure to regulate cable. Under pressure, particularly from the broadcasters, who could see this as a very fruitful source of competition milking off their audiences, and the fact that we were bringing in American programs, which they were carrying themselves, and so forth. But anyway, I was involved together with other members of the board in these many discussions with cabinet ministers and so forth, which eventually led to the government setting up the CRTC under the Broadcasting Act of 1968. So yes, I was involved heavily in all the negotiation up to that point.
CALDWELL: So by 1970, you had served for a number of years in large corporations, and I understand you were a vice-president of communications with Famous Players, and then you took your career in a…
EASTON: I joined Famous Players in 1960, and I joined Famous Players primarily to take charge of the engineering of the system which they were going to be building in Etobicoke to experiment with pay television, and that kept me occupied for the next two or three years, but then I gradually got involved in expanding Famous Players’ interests in cable as such in Canada. I was negotiating for numerous people to participate in cable management in cities large and small across Canada, and finally in 1966, I think it was, after we closed down the Telemeter operation and I started developing cable in Toronto, I was then appointed vice-president of communications at Famous Players, and in charge of all of Famous Players interests in Canada in cable throughout Canada. By that point it extended from Montreal in the east, right out to, we had interests out in Vancouver Island in the west, across the prairies – Alberta, Saskatchewan, we had participation interests in oh, a dozen or fifteen cable systems. In fact, at one point, we were the largest multiple system operator in North America.
CALDWELL: And a number of those systems would have varied greatly in size from the large systems in Montreal and Toronto, as you built some systems in small towns to receive distant signals.
EASTON: Relatively small, not really small, no. The smallest we built would probably have been – well, we had a system in CALDWELL:, Ontario that wasn’t particularly small, but it wasn’t the size of Toronto or Montreal. We had systems in the lake head, we had systems in Vancouver Island, Port Alberni. We had systems in Pale River, British Columbia, and so forth.
CALDWELL: So building some of those systems in the mountains of the west coast had its own set of challenges and some opportunities, I guess.
EASTON: Particularly later one, where I was involved in the experimenting and building of parabolic antennas for distant station reception, and I built a number of those, including some out in British Columbia on the tops of mountains. And building a parabolic antenna, which is about 100 to 150 feet wide and about 60 feet high on top of a mountain isn’t funny.
CALDWELL: That sounds like a very challenging engineering assignment.
EASTON: It was. It certainly was.
CALDWELL: Both to get it to stay there in the winter as well as to design it to receive the signals.
EASTON: Particularly as eventually I got to the point of designing and building parabolic antenna systems for space diversity reception, and we were able to receive stations from as much as 100 to 120 miles away across the border, mostly Americans using spaced antennas, and these antennas were on the order of 60 or 70 feet high and up to 150 feet long. You get two of those spaced – and they had to be spaced several hundred feet apart to get space diversity effect – that wasn’t easy.
CALDWELL: And you were doing this to overcome the fading of systems as the atmospheric conditions changed?
EASTON: That’s right, sure. For exactly the same reason as space diversity is used for example in microwave reception.
CALDWELL: Very different…
EASTON: Different frequencies.
CALDWELL: …different frequency and therefore a great challenge in the physical constructions.
EASTON: And much bigger antennas, that’s right.
CALDWELL: I understand some of these systems actually worked on what we refer to as a troposcatter system using anomalies of the propagation in the troposphere.
EASTON: Yes, that’s true. Particularly out in British Columbia. There were several systems out in British Columbia which were receiving American stations from as far as 180 miles away, completely beyond line of sight, and they were able to do it by taking advantage of a phenomenon which actually bends radio signals across an obstruction. It’s called, as you probably know, knife edge diffraction. You have a knife edge, which might be at the top of a mountain, and the signal coming from the transmitter hits the top of that mountain, bends, goes over the other side, and you could get phenomenal distances that way, and there were several systems in British Columbia which were receiving that way. Actually, the first system ever to use that technique was a system in the States, in… I forget where it was. Anyway, it was a system in one of the Western states which was receiving from Spokane, at that kind of a distance.
CALDWELL: So that’s really a case of making adversity work in your favor.
EASTON: Yes, indeed, that’s right, because normally the mountains just blocked you from any reception.
CALDWELL: So you spent a number of years of your career as a consultant to the industry and helped with the design of many systems, it seems.
EASTON: Yes, I was with Famous Players up until 1970 doing the design and administration of these systems across Canada, and in 1970, the government decided in its wisdom that all cable system operators, all companies operating cable systems had to be primarily Canadian in ownership, and primarily Canadian, in those days at least, meant at least 75% Canadian. Well, Famous Players has always been a Canadian Corporation, it’s been quoted on the stock exchanges in Toronto for years, but it was originally 51% owned by Paramount Pictures, and then Paramount sold out to Gulf & Weston and it was more recently 51% owned by Gulf & Weston, so it didn’t qualify as a Canadian company, and by Ordering Council, in 1969, the government said any company which is not qualified as a Canadian company is not authorized to hold or participate in cable television licenses. I spent about a year, as a matter of fact, selling off our interests in all the companies that I’d spent 10 or 15 years trying to build up, and eventually, in 1970, I left Famous Players because they were no longer in cable television. I had no interest in the movie business which is their primarily business, and so I decided to leave and go into consulting, and I did in fact set up my own consulting company, and I practiced in consulting both in Canada and throughout the United States for the next 20 years, until I finally resigned in 1991.
CALDWELL: So a career which spanned nearly 60 years of working – a career of remarkable duration.
EASTON: That’s right. Pretty close to 60 years.
CALDWELL: What have your interest been since your retirement?
EASTON: Well, you know, I’ve always said that no man should retire without a hobby, and I strongly believe that. There are so many men who do retire and they find they have nothing to occupy their time at all, and they’re either dead of boredom within about six months, or their wives are dead of frustration. So, I strongly believe that no man should retire without a hobby, and fortunately I had a hobby, which I was very interested in in the early days, I think I mentioned it earlier on, in my youth I was very interested in model building, scale model building, railroad models, ship models, and so forth. I had maintained that interest, but I had done nothing on it for years, because as you can gather I was pretty busy elsewhere for many years, but when it came time for retirement I decided that’s what I should do, go back to my original love, my original hobby of scale model building, and I’ve been doing that ever since I retired.
CALDWELL: And I understand that you’re also an author of at least two books of cable systems.
EASTON: Yes, I wrote a book in 1968, which was entitled Thirty Years in Cable Television – Reminiscences of a Pioneer, and I wrote it mainly because I thought it was time that we had some record of the history of cable television and the people in it, and so I wrote it. It was partly autobiographical, as the title suggests, but it was basically a history of the early days of cable television. It was not a book which, in my opinion, had a wide market because in those days, this was in… when did I read that… 1980. In 1980 there were only about 25% of people in North America who were connected to cable and knew what it was, so there wasn’t a big market interest. So it was difficult to get a publisher, so I published it myself, had it printed and bound, and so forth, and successfully sold about 1,500 copies, mainly in the industry, the cable industry, broadcasting, and so forth. And then, 20 years later, after I retired, in fact about three or four years ago, I decided that so much had happened since 1980 in the industry, with the advent of satellites, pay TV, digital, etc., etc., that it was necessary to bring it up to date, bring up the history to date. So I wrote another book, which was called Building an Industry, A History of Cable Television in Canada, in which I repeated much of the information I gave in the first book, but I converted it to history rather than autobiographical reminiscences, and then went on to give a history of everything that had happened in the following 20 years, bringing it up to date. So it is really an up to date history of cable television from the early days, including the early experiments with radio relay in England and so forth, right up to the present day.
CALDWELL: And is that book generally available?
EASTON: Yes, yes, it’s published, as a matter of fact, by a Nova Scotia publisher, and available on the market.
CALDWELL: Do you care to speculate on where the future is going to take cable? It’s made many changes over the years.
EASTON: Well, there’s no question in my mind that the future is convergence, and I mean convergence in the technical sense of the word, as well as the ownership sense of the word. Cable is converging now, as you know, with the introduction of digital transmission, and fiber optics, cable, and data, and audio, and every other form of communications just follows the same lines, uses the same plant, and indeed, is indistinguishable. By the time you’ve digitized a picture, it’s indistinguishable from a digitized text or a digitized speech, or a digitized anything. It’s all the same – to cable it’s digits. And that is convergence in the technical sense of the word. Well, that’s here now, as you know. You know, only too well, here at Eastlink.
CALDWELL: That’s right. We’ve begun to put Internet and telephone services together, with our cable and our digital cable, so the convergence world is happening.
EASTON: Sure, and that is the way in which it’s going too. As you mentioned, you have added telephone facilities. There’s no question that in the next 8 to 10 years, shall we say, that distribution of television, distribution of data has originated, for example, the Internet, distribution of voice as exemplified by telephone will all be one, all be the same thing technically, and I believe, almost inevitably will be converged as far as ownership, management, et cetera is concerned. And you can see it coming now. The telephone companies are getting into distribution of video, the cable companies are getting into distribution of audio, and they’re both doing the distribution of data from the Internet. It’s just converging into one thing and it will be indistinguishable both in terms of ownership and in terms of the technology. And it’s happening now.
CALDWELL: Ken, have we missed anything in your career that we should touch on?
EASTON: Probably, but I don’t think so. We seem to have covered a pretty wide field.
CALDWELL: Well, we certainly have.
EASTON: Some of which has taxed my memory, but I think I’ve covered it to the best of my ability.
CALDWELL: Ken, your role in the development of the cable industry has been very significant, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of The Cable Center for the time you spent with us today. This has been an oral history of Ken Easton, and was recorded as part of The Oral and Video History Program of The Cable Center. Your interviewer was David Caldwell. Thanks very much, Ken.
EASTON: Thank you.