John Logie Baird, inventor of the first demonstrable, working television, was born on the 13th of August, 1888.
John Logie Baird was a Scottish engineer and undoubtedly the inventor of the world´s first, practicable, working television system. He was one of a number of independent inventors of similar technology, but he nevertheless deserves his place in history and the title, the ´Father of Television´, because it was Baird who brought the idea of television to the attention of the world. There were many experiments into television being carried out in the early 1920s, but there is no question that Baird’s electromechanical contraption was the first practical system to be demonstrated to work. Although his apparatus was eventually displaced by purely electronic devices, Baird’s early successes, coupled with his later inventions, earn him a preeminent place in the history of television.
As early as the 26th of July, 1923, Baird had been able to apply for a patent for his invention and in Hastings, in 1924, using his first crude apparatus – the ‘Televisor’ – he transmitted the flickering image of a Maltese cross over a distance of ten feet. After moving to London, he made the first public demonstration of television pictures with clear, half-tones of light and shade, in Selfridge´s store in April, 1925. By October, 1925, he had made improvements sufficient to be able to transmit the thirty-line image of a ventriloquist´s dummy named ‘Stooky Bill’ across the room. He then transmitted the first television image of a human being; the face of office boy, William Taynton. And famously, on the 26th of January, 1926, Baird gave the world´s first demonstration of a viable television system, using mechanical picture scanning equipment with electronic amplification. His original apparatus, used in that demonstration, which was given in his tiny attic laboratory at 22 Frith Street, Soho, to an invited gathering of fifty scientists, all members of the Royal Institution, is now preserved in the Science Museum.
In 1927, he formed the Baird Television Development Company and demonstrated television over 438 miles of telephone line between London and Glasgow. In February of the following year, he made the first trans-Atlantic television transmissions, between London and New York. That same year, he made the first transmission to a ship, in mid-Atlantic. The list of Baird ‘firsts’ continued with the transmission of a performance of Pirandello´s play, ‘The Man with a Flower in His Mouth’, which was the first play to be performed on television in Britain – or anywhere in the world, for that matter. That play was broadcast on the 14th of July, 1930, just under a year before another first – the first outside broadcast; the Derby of June, 1931. Baird also gave the first demonstration of sequential-frame colour television, in early December, 1937, to the assembled Press. And, there was his all-electronic ´Telechrome´ colour television system, for which a receiver was first demonstrated to the press on the 16th of August, 1944. However, despite the undoubted brilliance of both the colour and stereoscopic television systems, the technologies were never implemented commercially until much later.
During his career, despite a lack of funds and lacking modern laboratory facilities, the driven, dogged and often poor John Logie Baird created a host of television technologies. His legacy includes: phonovision, a forerunner of the video recorder (which still relies largely on mechanical scanning); noctovision, an infra-red spotting system for ‘seeing’ in the dark; open-air television; a theater-projection system; stereoscopic colour TV; and the first high definition, fully electronic, colour television tube. He was also involved in the development of fibre-optics and radio direction finding. He patented a system that later became known as Radar, although his contribution to the development of radar during the Second World War has never been officially acknowledged and remains ‘classified’. Shortly before he died, in 1946, Baird was still drafting plans for a television with 1,000 lines of resolution and he had earlier patents for television with up to 1,700 lines of resolution, using interlacing technology. The world would not catch up with Baird’s ideas until 1990, when the Japanese introduced a TV with 1125 lines of resolution per frame.
John Logie Baird was born on the 13th of August, 1888, in Helensburgh, and attended Larchfield School. By the age of thirteen, he had designed a remote control for a camera, converted his father’s house to electric light, and constructed a small telephone exchange to connect his bedroom to those of his friends across the street. In 1906, he studied Electrical Engineering at the West of Scotland Technical College, before going on to Glasgow University. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War One and, due to problems with his health, instead of serving in the Forces, he served as Superintendent Engineer at the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company. After the War, he set himself up in business and his first invention was the ´Baird Undersock´, which was not a success. Next, he emigrated to Trinidad, and tried his hand at jam making, but handicapped again by ill health, he returned to Britain. By late 1922, John Logie Baird had pitched up in Hastings, where he took lodgings. His first interest in television came in 1903, after he read a German book on the photoelectric properties of selenium. He then applied himself to creating a television and in his attic, virtually penniless, he constructed the world´s first television out of ‘odds and ends’. The base of his motor was a washstand stood on a tea-chest, the projection lamp was stuck in a biscuit tin, scanning disks were cut from cardboard, and the lenses were bicycle accessories, purloined at four pence each. The contrivance was held together by darning needles, string and sealing wax. And, wondrous story that it is, his television worked.
Of course, Baird was not the only man in the picture frame of television history. A number of scientists had made important discoveries that John Logie Baird would use in his development of the television. Sometime in the 19th Century, Henri Becquerel found that light could be changed into electricity and, importantly, Ferdinand Braun had invented the cathode ray tube. Significantly, in 1884, the German inventor, Paul Nipkow, created the ‘Elektrisches Teleskop’, which was a device for scanning a picture that could be viewed through an eyepiece. Baird’s first electromechanical television was based on the ‘Nipkow disc’. Interestingly, the word ‘television’ was first coined by Constantin Perskyi at the International Electricity Congress in Paris, in 1900. However, in terms of the evolution of television, a number of other scientists must be given great credit. In London in 1908, the idea of using a cathode ray system for displaying the television picture at the receiver was first proposed by a prominent electrical engineer, Alan A. Campbell-Swinton.
In 1923, Vladimir Kosma Zworykin took out a patent on an electronic television camera tube, but it was not demonstrated. Also in 1923, in the United States, Philo Taylor Farnsworth conceived a television system while still in high school, utilising a cathode ray tube. In September, 1927, he demonstrated the transmission of straight line images – or a moving blob of light; take your pick – from his first ‘Image Dissector’. By which time, of course, Baird had formed the Baird Television Development Company and was able to transmit proper images between London and Glasgow. By 1929, Farnsworth was still only able to show silhouettes. Later important contributions were made by Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, who invented the revolutionary ‘Iconoscope’ in 1933 whilst working for RCA. Two years later, EMI unveiled the ‘Emitron’ camera tube, which was uncannily similar to Zworykin´s ‘Iconoscope’. Somewhere along the line, an American inventor named Charles Francis Jenkins patented a system with some similarity to Nipkow´s and demonstrated a crude television. AT&T first demonstrated a television system, developed by one of Bell Lab´s scientists, Herbert Ives, and based on Nipkow’s disc. Finally, General Electric also demonstrated a mechanical system, which was developed by Ernst Alexanderson.
John Logie Baird died at his home in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, on the 14th of June, 1946, and was buried in Helensburgh.