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Issue 5 - Vision of the future

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


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Vision of the future


Born in 1888, the youngest of four children, John Logie Baird was the son of Jessie and Reverend Baird who lived in Helensburgh, Glasgow.

Even as a child, Baird was a precocious scientist, designing and constructing an electric exchange between his and his friends’ houses with wires as a primitive ‘telephone’. He made the Baird family home the first in Helensburgh to be lit electrically, and also dabbled in photography and investigated the properties of the light-sensitive metal selenium, which was to be essential in the early development of the television.

Surprisingly, Baird never excelled academically: he did not stand out at school and began a degree at Glasgow University which he never finished. World War I had begun, and, unfit for service, he worked for Clyde Valley Electricity Company as Superintendent. Other Baird projects included selling the ‘Baird undersock’ which stayed warm in cold weather and cool when it was hot, and a jam-making project in Trinidad, which attracted unbearable hordes of insects.

He was increasingly interested in the idea of television and inspired by experiments carried out by a German inventor, Paul Nipkow. Nipkow invented a disc with a spiral of holes through which, if spun fast enough, an image made up of scanned lines would be visible as a unified image due to the eye’s ability to retain and reassemble it. However, at that time there was no way to amplify a signal generated by the photosensitive selenium sufficiently to be viewed.

Baird encountered the same problems as Nipkow with his experiments: lack of clarity of the image and weakness of the selenium cell impulses. He was also impoverished, and aware that other scientists were racing to achieve the same goal.

In January 1924, Baird’s first television demonstrations were reported in the press. In 1926, he presented a‘transmitter’ to the Science Museum. It consisted of a tea chest for a base, a mounted motor and a home-made device like that of Nipkow. Aselenium tube was housed in a biscuit box. He successfully transmitted an image of the Maltese Cross. In spring 1925, Baird transmitted a small image of a doll for spectators in London’s Selfridge’s department store. The first human to appear on television was a young office worker, William Taynton, who was paid to stand still under the hot lights. The television was also unveiled to the public in 1926, with pictures of moving human faces.

However, Baird had a continually difficult relationship with the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], who initially refused him a license to transmit, motivating him to create his own television station, Baird TV. Eventually, the then General Manager, J. C. W. Reith, was persuaded to reconsider and Baird got a licence for tests in 1926.

On 9th February 1928, a picture was first transmitted internationally, between London and New York, hailed as a great technological achievement and general sensation. Baird was always working to improve his invention, and demonstrated colour television in 1928, as well as synchronising sound with pictures.

He was put under pressure to perfect the television and make it commercially viable. In 1932, the first batch of 500 to 1,000 televisions was manufactured and sold. Cinemas began to show large screen ‘teletalkies’, a great celebrity vehicle.

Throughout his career, Baird faced competition from other scientists: the Russian Vladimir Zworykin and Philo T. Fransworth, both based in the US, in particular, investigating cathode ray technology. Larger organisations like EMI [Electrical and Musical Industries] and the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company were also conducting research. Baird himself had received funds from Gaumont British for the ‘teletalkies’.

John Baird continually advanced in his research, which also encompassed three-dimensional television, secret signalling and radar. Married to concert pianist Margaret Albu, he had two children, Diana and Malcolm. He had always suffered from ill health, and neglected himself through overwork. He died in 1946 aged only 58 in his home at Bexhill, on the south coast of England, his health having further deteriorated over several years. Sadly, he was not granted the knighthood he hoped for, and deserved,despite having pioneered television and contributed significantly to other technologies, for which he is now rightly recognised.

Thanks to John Crompton, Curator of Engineering and Industry, National Museums of Scotland.

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