Science & Innovation – John Logie Baird

John Logie Baird

Inventor, Entrepreneur, TV Pioneer and the first person to demonstrate a working television

The television pioneer John Logie Baird was born on the 13th August, 1888 at The Lodge, 121 West Argyle Street, Helensburgh. He was the youngest of the four children of the Revd John Baird, minister of the West Parish Church, Helensburgh, and his wife, Jessie Morrison Inglis.

Baird was educated at three schools in Helensburgh, between 1893 and 1906. He attended Larchfield (now part of Lomond School) from the age of 11 until he was admitted to an electrical engineering course at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College. Logie Baird had demonstrated a keen interest in science and technology from an early age. Whilst at school he designed a remote control for a camera, installed electricity in The Lodge and also built a glider. He even created a basic telephone network with his friends. One of whom, Jack Buchanan , become a star of stage and screen and a financial backer of Baird’s pioneering television development. It is believed that Logie Baird first became interested in television in 1903 after he read a German book on the photoelectric properties of selenium.

In 1914 he was awarded an associateship of the college and then attended Glasgow University as a final year BSc degree student, but he withdrew in March 1915. In 1916, having obtained a position as a superintendent engineer with the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company, he applied for military service but was declared medically unfit. In 1918 he resigned from the Clyde Valley company to follow, full time, various entrepreneurial business ventures.

Baird had a flair for marketing and showed and displayed an incredibly natural entrepreneurial spirit. During the years 1917 to 1922 he sold—at different periods in Glasgow, the West Indies, and London—medicated socks, boot polish, solid scent, jam, honey, fertilizer, coir fibre, and soap! His biggest adventure during this period was when he set sail for Port of Spain, Trinidad in November 1919. Realising that the island was rich with citrus fruit and sugar, he set up his jam factory but he found it difficult to cope with the insect life and he contracted a fever. He returned to Britain in September 1920 and continued with his business ventures in London.

In 1923, John Logie Baird arrived in Hastings, staying at 21 Linton Crescent, on England’s South Coast to convalesce from a bad bout of ill health. Whilst in Hastings, Baird began to study the problems of transmitting and receiving visual signals, namely, television. He had very limited financial and technical resources. Undaunted he set about his task, rented an attic and began to assemble a range of materials that on the face of it appeared quite ordinary – an old hatbox, a pair of scissors, darning needles, a few bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest, sealing wax and glue.

It was in 1924 that he achieved a major milestone when he managed to transmit an image of a Maltese Cross over a distance of ten feet. The following April in 1925 Baird was able to demonstrate, in public, at Selfridge’s Oxford Street store, in London, the transmission of crude outlines of simple objects. He continued to carry our his experiments over the months and this led to the 1925 transmission of the first true television image, the painted wooden head of a ventriloquist’s dummy known as Stooky Bill. This was a breakthrough because the pictures showed light and shade (half-tones), making them much clearer; it is believed to have come on October 2 1925 at Baird’s workshop in Frith Street, Soho. He later transmitted the image of a young man working in the office downstairs, William Taynton, whom he paid two shillings and sixpence to endure the hot lights then necessary for an effective image.

Baird demonstrated television to invited members of the Royal Institution on 26 January 1926. The pictures measured only 3.5 x 2 inches. This outstanding achievement was considered to be the world’s first demonstration of television – the possibility of ‘seeing at a distance’ which had first been proposed in 1878 and had eluded inventors the world over.

Baird, backed by a variety of supporters, including Helensburgh childhood friend Jack Buchanan, set about creating companies to formally market and produce his inventions. Television Ltd was registered on 11 June 1925, and the Baird Television Development Company Ltd was established in April 1927, with Baird International Television Ltd being launched on 25 June 1928. Baird attempted to consider and pre-empt every possible application of television and applied for patent protection for many ideas. During his lifetime he took out 178 patents. The successful demonstrations enabled Baird to raise money from investors, hire a staff of engineers, and move to a much larger facility at Long Acre, London. There, he was able to secure the grudging agreement of the BBC to allow him to transmit regular broadcasts, though only on a less-than-ideal bandwidth, and only very late at night. Sir John Reith, head of the BBC, believed that television was a “waste of time,” and conceived of the limited service provided as purely experimental. Nevertheless, with the support of the government, Baird’s company eventually obtained a license for regular broadcasts, and began the sale of receivers, known as “televisors.” The televisor sold for £18. These came assembled or as a less-expensive kit, and included an application form for a license (early British broadcasting was strictly non commercial, and was subsidised by license fees charged to receive its signal).

During this period, Baird, demonstrated low-definition noctovision, daylight television, colour television, stereoscopic television, phonovision (the recording of sound and image on a gramophone disc), large-screen television, and zone television. On 30 September 1929 the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted, using the Baird 30-line system, its first experimental television broadcast. There were to be some notable firsts during this period, including a performance of Pirandello’s play, The Man with a Flower in His Mouth – the first play to be performed on television in Britain, on 14 July 1930 and the first outside broadcast – the Derby was televised live in June 1931. Finally the BBC began to take television seriously, and on 22 August 1932, the BBC began a regular television service from basement studio BB in the new Broadcasting House using Baird’s system, albeit still experimental and still low-definition 30-line.

In November 1931, in New York, Baird married Margaret Cecilia (d. 1996), a concert pianist, daughter of the late Henry Albu, a South African diamond merchant. They had one son, Malcolm, and one daughter, Diana. The following year on 22 August, the first public (in the UK), 30-line television service was inaugurated by the BBC; it remained in operation until 15 September 1935.

However, Baird was not the only television pioneer in town. He had at first ignored the move towards high-definition television, using very high frequencies and all-electronic means, which his rivals were developing. When the BBC opened its London television station on 2 November 1936, it trialled two systems of television. Baird Television Ltd. had developed a 240-line system which was still partly mechanical. Its rival company, Marconi-EMI had developed the American (RCA) all-electronic system to give a 405-line picture It was the latter version that was selected and the last BBC transmission using the Baird system was sent out on 30 January 1937. Despite a disastrous fire at its Crystal Palace premises in November 1936, Baird Television continued to innovate and in early December 1937, Baird demonstrated sequential-frame colour television to the press in early December 1937 and then to the public on 4 February 1938 at the Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road, where images from Crystal Palace were shown on a 12ft x 9ft screen.

Even though the loss of one of the world’s largest television opportunities was a major blow, Baird continued to investigate and invent in the fields of television.

The firm bearing his name went into receivership just after the outbreak of World War II, but Baird continued his research at his own expense, particularly in the areas of electronic colour and large screen transmission, taking out 26 patents between 1940 and 1946. He was to become the first person to design, construct, and exhibit (in 1944) a multi-gun colour television tube (the telechrome tube), for which a receiver was first demonstrated to the media on 16 August 1944. However, despite the undoubted brilliance of both the colour and stereoscopic television systems, they were never implemented commercially, mainly due the effects that the war had had on the economy.

Unfortunately, Baird’s long battle with ill health was to catch up with him and he died from coronary thrombosis, at his rented home, Instow, 1 Station Road, at Bexhill, Sussex, on 14 June 1946. The old house was demolished in 2007. The Sea Road-Station Road skyline now features a new block of 51 flats on the site, renamed “Baird Court”.

John Logie Baird, perhaps, Helensburgh’s most famous son is buried in the town of his birth alongside his father, mother and wife.

Baird’s achievements will be forever remembered across the globe and he has rightly won a place in the history books for his contribution to society. In 2002, Logie Baird was ranked number 44 in the list of the “100 Greatest Britons” and in 2006 he was voted into the top 10 Scottish Science Hall of Fame.

Baird’s own memoirs were belatedly published in 2004 as ‘Television and Me’ and two major new books about his work during World War II have been published in 2009 and 2012 by Dr. Douglas Brown.

Interest remains high in the life and works of Logie Baird, as evidenced by the auction of an early copy of a 1926 Televison book signed by John Logie Baird on the 23rd November 2010 at Bonhams. The book, believed to be Logie Baird’s personal copy, had been handed into an Edinburgh branch of Oxfam. It’s potential value was recognised and it was sent to auction where it sold for £1440 to an anonymous UK bidder. The Oxfam/Baird book became a major international news story.

In 2012, the charity Helensburgh Heroes successfully raised £2,250 via crowdfunding to secure what is believed to be the only known example of an original 1925 Baird television catalogue complete with order form.

Key Facts

1888 – John Logie Baird born in Helensburgh, Scotland
1924 – Successful transmission a flickering image across a few feet
1926 – Gave world’s first demonstration of true television in London’s Soho
1927 – Demonstrated his Television over 438 miles of telephone line between London & Glasgow
1927 – Created Baird Television Development Company
1928 – Achieved first transatlantic TV transmission between London & New York,
1928 – First transmission to a ship
1928 – First demonstration of both colour and stereoscopic television
1929 – German Post Office backs his mechanical television system and commissions a TV service
1930 – Simultaneously transmits sound and vision
1931 – Baird marries Margaret Cecilia in New York
1935 – BBC selects Marconi all-electric TV system over Baird’s mechanical variant
1937 – Baird’s mechanical system dropped by BBC but his company still makes television receivers
1939 – BBC shuts down television and Baird Television Ltd. goes into liquidation
1940 – Baird demonstrates 600-line colour television
1941 – Demonstrates 600-line colour and 3D television
1944 – Demonstrates colour cathode ray tube (Telechrome)
1946 – Baird dies in Bexhill, Sussex, England

Helensburgh Heroes is indebted to Professor Malcolm Baird for his contribution to this entry.