1995 - How the TV revolution started
The last Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards recognized the pivotal role LEMO played in the creation and development of HDTV. The key players told us how, 30 years ago, a normal tender became the first step towards a new era.
Comparing today’s TV images with those from the past shows a shocking contrast. No need to go back too far: when people in their forties watch their childhood programmes from the early nineties, HD was nowhere around yet. Screens display excessive grain, approximate colours, and irregular slow-motion replay.
Copper cables seemed sufficient to relay data captured by the cameras. But Marcello Pesci, LEMO’s CEO felt that fibre optics could shake up the broadcast industry. He decided to set up a dedicated team and, in 1991, he hired the expert who would become its leader.
Glen McFarlane, an Englishman of Jamaican origins, had just spent a decade working on fibre optics for Philips. LEMO wanted to offer connectors adapted for such applications, so the expert started by developing new contacts.
The challenge was huge, remembers McFarlane. “In the field, broadcast cables are being dragged on the ground, stepped on and rolled all over. The connectors are exposed to enormous load, pressure, shock, vibration and temperature variations. I had to create contacts that – in such extreme conditions – keep two fibres that are smaller than 10 microns, perfectly aligned and connected. “
Months of work led to the launch of the F2, contacts that “outperformed anything that existed at the time”. Panasonic was among those who adopted it in the first half of the nineties. These cameras were still filming in standard quality, but the broadcast giant was already preparing a revolution. “In 1994” explains McFarlane, “their rep informed me that Japanese manufacturers were planning to propose, for the very first time, broadcasting full events in high definition.”
In early 1995, the – still confidential – project was confirmed by LEMO’s Japanese subsidiary. It would be led by the ARIB (Association of Radio Industries and Businesses, the Japanese standardization organisation for telecom, including TV channels and camera manufacturers). Targeted deadline: the Atlanta Olympic Games in the summer of 1996. LEMO was the only non-Japanese company participating in the bid.
Supported by his CEO, McFarlane made many trips to understand the needs and define the requirements. At the CNN headquarters in Atlanta, he was reminded that a 10-second signal interruption could deprive a billion television viewers from the flagship event of the Olympic Games, the 100-metre finals.
The product was defined as a hybrid six-contact connector – two optical fibres, two high voltage (camera power supply) and two low voltage contacts (communication between the camera and the control unit). Glen McFarlane teamed up with René Moreillon, LEMO’s product director at the time, to integrate F2 contacts into connector housings very similar to those developed for extreme environments. The new solution, named 3K.93C, underwent intense internal testing. In late spring 1995, it was sent to Japan to be tested by Panasonic and Sony.
On 29th July, McFarlane flew to Tokyo with Jean-Claude Hubert, LEMO’s recently appointed Technical Director, to receive the test results. “Our product came out best”, says McFarlane. “The Japanese found only one weak point, in the anchoring device.”
Ironically, this weakness has nothing to do with connection quality, it is mechanical: the connector and the cable had to be able to stop a camera (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) from falling off a platform.
LEMO’s Japanese subsidiary and the fibre optic team in the UK (six people by then) reacted immediately. The time zone on their side, McFarlane and Hubert worked through the night in their hotel room in Tokyo. They spent hours on the phone with England. “We redesigned the anchoring practically over a single night!”, remembers the FO engineer Alan Brooks. Prototypes and tests were performed in the days that followed. The proposed solution was accepted by the ARIB.
The working group’s final decision came in early November: LEMO’s solution was selected. The Olympic Games coming up, the project turned from “confidential” to “operational”.
Some 200 3K.93C connectors were produced, which was enough, since only part of the cameras would be equipped for high definition. LEMO also created maintenance and repair kits, so that engineers could take quick action, if necessary. The final tests and audits were performed.
In July 1996, everything was ready for the Atlanta Olympic Games.
"I watched the opening ceremony with my fingers crossed," chuckles Glen. Brooks felt confident. He didn’t even fly to the US to provide assistance: the 3K.93C performed as well as the athletes. No breakdowns, zero problems.
After the Olympics, the connectors and cables were sent to Japan to be tested. Glen took part in the tests. "Everything was worn out and covered in Atlanta red dirt. But the connections were flawless!"
Thanks to this successful operation, the 3K.93C did not simply stay a product for long. In 1997, the ARIB decided to make it a standard for HDTV (LEMO edited the standard). Immediately thereafter, its US equivalent, the SMPTE adopted it as well. Then in 1999, the European EBU followed as well.
Meanwhile, TV-sets converted to high definition. In addition to all the advantages for the studios (more data over longer distances) there are all the benefits for TV viewers (comprehensive and vivid images, perfect slow-motion).
Television entered a new era.
This type of revolution is exactly what distinguishes the Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards granted by the American television.
Early 2021, LEMO learnt that it would be recognised for its role in the “ Standardization and Commercialization of Television – Broadcast, Hybrid, Electrical and Fibre-Optic Camera Cable and Connectors ”.
LEMO officially received its Emmy last autumn, at the same time as its partners, the ARIB, the SMPTE and the EBU. The famous golden statuette has found its place in the reception area of LEMO’s Swiss headquarters.
“ Who would have imagined this fantastic adventure in 1995 ? ”, comments Jean-Claude Hubert. Alan Brooks confirms : “ We weren’t conscious of what the 3K.93C would become, but we worked hard on it. It is the result of fantastic team effort. We were really at the forefront of broadcasting. ” Glen McFarlane says he put his heart into it and proudly concludes : “ It is an excellent product that deserves the honours it received ! ”
The Emmy Award is the Hollywood fairy tale ending of this story, but not that of the connector Series.
Designed almost 30 years ago for the “ simple ” HD, the 3K.93C perfectly supports the 4K provided today by television channels. It will just as well support tomorrow’s 6K or 8K.
In parallel, LEMO launched the 3K.93C.Y, a compatible but totally re-engineered variant (including its contacts). LEMO’s US subsidiary NORTHWIRE designed a dedicated SMPTE cable, which makes it possible for LEMO to propose a complete solution.
The show must go on.