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Issue 61 - John Logie Baird (1888-1946)

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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John Logie Baird (1888-1946)

The father of television

During the 1920s and ’30s, John Logie Baird was a pioneer and a market-leader in a fiercely competitive field, earning his eventual credit as the ‘father of television’.

He had a patchy career; in no way was his life one long ascent to TV glory. In hindsight he seems like something of a crazy professor, dabbling in jam-making in Trinidad, thermal socks, pneumatic shoes and glass razors. Most of these inventions were a bit of a disaster but fortunately for our memory of Baird they are entirely overshadowed by his great successes.

Born to a clergyman in Helensburgh in August 1888, Baird showed early signs of interest in telecommunications. He set up a makeshift telephone exchange to connect his childhood home to his friends in a neighbouring street.

He was educated at Glasgow & West of Scotland Technical College until the First World War, when he was declared unfit for active service and went to work instead for the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company.

Baird suffered from very poor health throughout his life, making it all the more impressive how much he achieved in the relatively brief period that he devoted to his best inventions.

It took him some time to settle on that career, but in 1923 he moved to Hastings on the south coast of England and set about creating the world’s first working television set.

When you think of 21st century nano-technology and how little most people know about the inner workings of their gadgets, it is amazing to think that Baird cobbled together this first television from household items of his day, including a hat box, some darning needles and a used tea chest.

In 1924 he managed to transmit an image over a distance of 10 feet, then in 1925 he made the world’s first public demonstration of the invention he later called ‘The Televisor’.

Living in London by this point, Baird sought publicity through demonstrations at the Selfridges department store and private showings for invited audiences such as the Royal Institution and The Times newspaper. He demonstrated the transmission of colour images on 3rd July 1928.

At this time Baird was also in the lead (at least in Britain) in the long distance transmission of television signal. He successfully transmitted over 438 miles between London and Glasgow. He then established the Baird Television Development Company and in 1928 achieved the first transatlantic transmission between London and New York.

Business was booming and the BBC used Baird’s system to broadcast across the UK from 1929. His company launched the first mass-produced television sets in 1930.

It all started to decline in the second half of the 1930s, when Baird’s mechanical television system was outclassed by the wholly electronic systems marketed by EMI and Marconi, which were later merged. Following a damaging fire in Baird’s studio, the BBC finally dropped all Baird system broadcasts in February 1937. Five months later Baird received an honorary fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, just as his career appeared to be waning.

But John Logie Baird had more to give. In 1939 he demonstrated new advances in colour television, and in 1941 he patented and demonstrated high-definition 3D television. This was well ahead of its time. In the confusion of the post-war years it became a forgotten technology and a missed opportunity, only to be resurrected decades later.

In addition to all this, Baird also invented an early video recording device (‘phonovision’) and contributed to developments in infrared nightvision, fibre-optics and radar.

Baird moved with his wife and two children to Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex in December 1944. Two years later he suffered a stroke and died on 14 June 1946, aged 57. John Logie Baird is buried in his original home town of Helensburgh, with his parents and his wife.

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