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John Logie Baird (1888–1946)

Scottish-born inventor John Logie Baird was an extraordinary pioneer of early television. According to some reports, he was working on a television apparatus based upon Nipkow's disc-scanning theory as early as 1918, from an attic room in Bath Hotel, Glasgow. This account comes from an associate who recalls helping Baird to punch holes in cardboard discs which would almost certainly have been Nipkow discs.

What is certain is that in 1922, Baird took up residence in an attic room at No. 8, Queen's Arcade, Hastings where he assembled a crude mechanical television apparatus, and in 1923, he began to concentrate on the development of the light sensitive cell.

After reading about a sophisticated wireless set built by Hastings Grammar School boy Victor Mills, he turned up on the young man’s doorstep. Baird told Mills about his work on television and Mills soon became a frequent caller to Baird's Hastings address. He claimed that he discovered the cause of Baird's problem was that his selenium cells were too big. He also claims that on his second trip to Baird's laboratory he took some of his own equipment with him. Whilst making adjustments, Mills put his hand in front of the illuminated apparatus: 'I decided I'd got it right and just then Baird yelled out, "It's here, it's here!" And according to Mills the first pictures ever transmitted were of his hand.

Baird took out a small advertisement in 'The Times' Personal Column on June 27th, which read: 'Seeing by Wireless — Inventor of apparatus wishes to hear from someone who will assist (not financially) in making working model.'

On 26th July, Baird made his first patent application No. 222, 604 for his system of transmitting images.

In 1924 he demonstrated his mechanical television system and an account written by reporter F. H. Robinson appeared in the April edition of 'Kinematograph Weekly'. Robinson informed readers that the apparatus was 'a commercial proposition' and that, 'undoubtedly wonderful possibilities are opened up by this invention.'

On 25th March 1925, Baird presented his first public demonstration of 'Silhouette Television' at Selfridges store in Oxford Street, London. Afterwards, Mr Gordon Selfridge Junior called on Baird at Frith Street where Baird gave him further demonstrations. Selfridge was so impressed that he invited him back to the Oxford Street store for a further three weeks to give personal demonstrations of the new device.

On 2nd October, Baird made the first transmission of a moving image showing gradations of light and shade when he broadcast images of 'Stooky Bill' - a tattered old ventriloquist's dummy that he had been using for his experiments. Whereas previously the doll had been visible only as a white blob with three black blobs marking the position of the nose and eyes, on this occasion the doll appeared with what Baird described as "unbelievable clarity". 

On 27th January 1926, John Logie Baird conducted the first public demonstration of true television anywhere in the world to nearly fifty members of the Royal Institute at his Soho premises.

News soon reached the USA and in the September edition of 'Radio News' an article appeared stating: 'Mr Baird has definitely and indisputably given a demonstration of real television.​

 It is the first time in history that this has been done in any part of the world.' In the 'New York Times' on 6th March 1927, there was a reference stating: "no one but this Scottish minister's son has ever transmitted and received a recognisable image with its graduations of light and shade."

Baird was also intrigued by the sound made by his images, and had begun to experiment with recording the signals onto wax discs for which he had applied for a patent in 1926, and in 1927 he applied for a patent for metal discs which he planned to market at a later stage under the name of 'Phonovision'. Though it was some years before the equipment to play back his discs was actually invented, some of the discs he made still survive and are the first example of the 'tape-recording' principle.

On 26th May 1927, the first public demonstration of television transmission between two cities in Britain took place when Baird spoke from London to Sir John S. Samuel in Glasgow.

The following year, he demonstrated the first transatlantic television transmission between London and New York. He also gave the first demonstration of both colour and stereoscopic television.

The first daily television service began on 30th September 1929 when Baird transmitted on a low definition (30 lines) service from the BBC. He was also commissioned by the German post office to develop an experimental television service based on his mechanical system. The following year, the world's first truly mass-produced television set to be sold to the public was produced in the UK in the form of Baird's 'Televisor' set (although Baird had produced his first commercially available set as early as 1928).

In 1931, he began to experiment with ultra short-wave transmissions. The BBC was using medium waves which restricted Baird to transmissions of 30 lines, though their advantage was to carry signals over great distance. Ultra short-wave allowed much more detail but limited the range to about forty miles, which could however be increased by the use of relay transmitters. In April 1932 he gave a demonstration from his ultra short-wave transmitter at Long Acre, and the pictures were transmitted to a receiver at Selfridges.

In the same year, major organisational changes at Baird Television Ltd (BTL) resulted in control passing to Isidore Ostrer and the Gaumont-British Film Corporation.

Also in 1932, the BBC began its own research into television production. They set up their first TV studio in Broadcasting House using Baird's equipment and appointed Douglas Birkinshaw as television engineer. He was joined by D. R. Campbell and Thornton Bridgewater from the Baird Company.

Baird was ousted from his duties at Baird Television Ltd. following a boardroom coup in 1933 though he retained the title of managing director. In July of that year, the company moved to a new facility at The Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Baird moved to a house nearby where he continued to develop new technologies, occasionally making press appearances but generally excluded from the day-to-day running of the company.

Baird's mechanical system was rapidly becoming obsolete. Although Baird had also been experimenting with electronic television from an early stage, a BBC committee of inquiry in 1935 prompted a side-by-side trial between Marconi's all-electronic 405 line system, and Baird's 240 line system. Marconi won, resulting in Baird's system being dropped in 1937.

In 1940, Baird gave a demonstration of a high-definition full colour stereo television and by the mid-1940s he was working on producing television using 1000 lines resolution — remarkable when one considers that domestic tube televisions used 625 lines up until the advent of our 1080p high-definition LCD, LED and plasma technology televisions of the 21st century.

Born: 14th August, 1888 at Helensburgh, Scotland 

 Died: 14th June, 1946 at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex

Text and 'Televisor' plaque photo ©2008 Paul Pert

©2009 Paul Pert

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