The term high definition once described a series of television systems originating from August 1936; however, these systems were only high definition when compared to earlier systems that were based on mechanical systems with as few as 30 lines of resolution. The ongoing competition between companies and nations to create true “HDTV” spanned the entire 20th century, as each new system became more HD than the last.
The British high-definition TV service started trials in August 1936 and a regular service on 2 November 1936 using both the (mechanical) Baird 240 line sequential scan (later to be inaccurately rechristened ‘progressive’) and the (electronic) Marconi-EMI 405 line interlaced systems. The Baird system was discontinued in February 1937. In 1938 France followed with their own 441-line system, variants of which were also used by a number of other countries. The US NTSC 525-line system joined in 1941. In 1949 France introduced an even higher-resolution standard at 819 lines, a system that should have been high definition even by today’s standards, but was monochrome only and the technical limitations of the time prevented it from achieving the definition of which it should have been capable. All of these systems used interlacing and a 4:3 aspect ratio except the 240-line system which was progressive (actually described at the time by the technically correct term “sequential”) and the 405-line system which started as 5:4 and later changed to 4:3. The 405-line system adopted the (at that time) revolutionary idea of interlaced scanning to overcome the flicker problem of the 240-line with its 25 Hz frame rate. The 240-line system could have doubled its frame rate but this would have meant that the transmitted signal would have doubled in bandwidth, an unacceptable option as the video baseband bandwidth was required to be not more than 3 MHz.
Colour broadcasts started at similarly higher resolutions, first with the US NTSC color system in 1953, which was compatible with the earlier monochrome systems and therefore had the same 525 lines of resolution. European standards did not follow until the 1960s, when the PAL and SECAM color systems were added to the monochrome 625 line broadcasts.
The Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) began conducting research to “unlock the fundamental mechanism of video and sound interactions with the five human senses” in 1964, after the Tokyo Olympics. NHK set out to create an HDTV system that ended up scoring much higher in subjective tests than NTSC’s previously dubbed “HDTV”. This new system, NHK Color, created in 1972, included 1125 lines, a 5:3 aspect ratio and 60 Hz refresh rate. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), headed by Charles Ginsburg, became the testing and study authority for HDTV technology in the international theater. SMPTE would test HDTV systems from different companies from every conceivable perspective, but the problem of combining the different formats plagued the technology for many years.