John Logie Baird
b. August 13, 1888, Helensburgh, Dunbarton, Scotland, UK
d. June 14, 1946, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, England


John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer and entrepreneur, is remembered as the inventor of mechanical television, radar and fiber optics. Successfully tested in a laboratory in late 1925 and unveiled with much fanfare in London in early 1926, mechanical television technology was quickly usurped by electronic television, the basis of modern video technology. Nonetheless, Baird's achievements, including making the first trans-Atlantic television transmission, were singular and critical scientific accomplishments.


 

The Lodge, Helensburgh, how it looks now

John Logie Baird was born on 13 August 1888, the fourth child of Jessie and John Baird. His father was a Presbyterian minister. The family lived in a large house called "The Lodge" in Helensburgh, a coastal town which lies 25 miles northwest of Glasgow. By the turn of the century, this house had seen the development of a telephone exchange, had been supplied with electric lighting and had been the site of an early flight experiment, all of which were the work of the imaginative youngest child.

A telephone exchange was quite an achievement for a young schoolboy. Other children played with tin cans and pieces of string, but John Baird had tried this method and was dissatisfied. Instead, he made an electric exchange and connected his home to those of four of his friends. Unfortunately this telephone service was not in use for very long, as one of its low hanging wires caused the driver of a hansom cab to have an accident. This driver's protests soon led to the removal of the telephone wires from their various positions around the neighbourhood. Never one to waste resources, the boy then used the wires from his telephone exchange to set up a lighting system for The Lodge. Run by a petrol powered generator in the back garden, this activity made his parents' home the first in Helensburgh to have electric lighting.

John Logie Baird was also conducting experiments in other areas of research. The first year of this century saw the young inventor standing on the roof of his parents' house with a home-made glider. This experiment took place on a flat section of the roof of The Lodge, and had a rather strong impact on the rest of Baird's life. The glider was constructed with the assistance of his friend Godfrey Harris, but may not have been as well designed or constructed as some of his later machinery. Baird describes this incident in his autobiography Sermons, Soap and Television: "I had no intention of flying, but before I had time to give more than one shriek of alarm, Godfrey gave the machine one terrific push, and I was launched shrieking into the air. I had a few very nauseating seconds while the machine rocked wildly and then broke in half and deposited me with a terrific bump on the lawn." Fortunately, Baird was not seriously hurt by this fall, but elements of this particular experiment would surface again in his life. Just as he collaborated with young Godfrey Harris, he would always be ready to enlist the help of others. In later life, Baird's experiments would associate him with a diverse range of people, from a bright teen age radio enthusiast named Victor Mills to Winston Churchill's chief scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann. This glider incident gave Baird a great fear of flying, which would prevent him from travelling easily, and also foreshadowed the great difficulty he would have in maintaining his physical well-being. Even as a child, from the time he suffered an undiagnosed illness at the age of two, Baird's health was never good. Later on, as well as incurring various minor injuries in the early days of his work on television, he would also suffer from repeated physical breakdowns.
 

John Logie Baird
as a schoolboy

A healthy social life and an inventive nature seemed to be at variance with Baird's school career. The twelve year old boy is described in his school report as "very slow," "timid" and "...by no means a quick learner." Nevertheless, Baird was not discouraged by his academic record, and in 1906 entered a diploma course in electrical engineering at the Larchfield Academy in Glasgow and then at the West of Scotland Royal Technical College (now called Strathclyde University).


 

He graduated from this course on 1 October 1914, and then entered Glasgow University to upgrade his diploma to a Bachelor of Science. Unfortunately, World War One broke out, and Baird never completed his degree. Baird, now 26 years old, tried on many occasions to enlist with the army, but was repeatedly rejected as unfit for army service. At this time Baird had some business with damp-proof socks invented by him. The Baird undersock, warm in winter, cool in summer, and consisted of an unbleached half hose sprinkled with borax. In 1919 Baird decided to close the sock operation, despite it being quite profitable. Baird joined a friend in Trinidad. Baird sold an assortment of trinkets he had taken with him to earn money, but eventually he had to find alternative means. The island was full of sugar, citrus fruits and mango trees, a jam and chutney venture seemed to offer possibilities. With the help of Tony, a Portuguese, and Ram Roop, a Hindu, three bamboo huts were erected in the Santa Cruz valley to house a jam making plant. Unfortunately the rich, sweet aroma from the boiling jam attracted thousands of insects. Although many became incinerated and fell into the copper vat, the wildlife won and this tropical venture came to an end. Once Baird returned to England he tried to sell the mango chutney, honey and soap before embarking upon a series of experiments which were to change his life and the lives of millions world wide.

Fascinated by mechanics, motors and electricity, he voraciously read technical books and popular magazines like Wireless World and Wireless Weekly. In one of these he encountered the word television - coined by Constantin Perskyi at the International Electricity Congress of 1900 in Paris. Literally meaning "to see from a distance," television was the latest term for a concept that had been seriously discussed since the mid-19th century. Baird became intoxicated with the idea of a machine that could transmit images of events as they occurred across the world. Many solutions had been proposed, but Baird found the work of German inventor Paul Nipkow particularly intriguing. Nipkow's invention in 1884 of a rotating disk (Nipkow disk) with one or more spirals of apertures that passed successively across the picture made a mechanical television system possible. As simple and elegant as his idea was, Nipkow had little success with it. The necessary means of synchronism and signal amplification were beyond the technology of his day. Reading about Nipkow's idea raised before the First World War, Baird supposed it would be easy to perfect. In fact, he was surprised to learn that no one had yet created a working television system. Ignorance can be a worthy ally for ambitious endeavors. Baird would face years of technical challenges, setbacks, and personal frustration before he finally created a working television.

In 1920 Baird by chance met an old friend, Captain O.G. Hutchinson. Baird breathlessly told him about his "great idea." His enthusiasm was contagious. Hutchinson offered to help him raise money for research. Then, in late 1922, Baird became gravely ill and was forced to quit his job. He began working on his television project in a little town about 60 miles south of London. Living on meager savings, he became disheveled, shaggy-haired and sallow, and his clothes wore thin. He mended them with crude patches and carried on his thankless research.
 

J.L. Baird with an early prototype televsion

Financially destitute much of the time, Baird gathered a few magnets, a vacuum tube, and some odds-and-ends, and with the continued financial help of Hutchinson and local volunteer radio amateurs and other helpers, began piecing together a dream. Many of the limitations that thwarted Nipkow now plagued Baird. Although selenium cells had improved in sensitivity, their impulses could not be sufficiently amplified for image reproduction. (Eventually this problem was solved with thermionic valve amplifiers, but they were years away). He considered photoelectric cells and neon tubes, but encountered the same dead ends. Additionally, Nipkow's old Achilles heel, synchronization, was as problematic as ever. Even state of the art devices used for high-speed multi-plex telegraphy were not suitable for television.

Baird worked tirelessly to overcome these obstacles. Aware that other scientists with greater funds were at work, he raced to beat them. Actually, after World War I, an American inventor named Charles Jenkins patented a system with some similarity to Nipkow's and demonstrated a crude television for two influential science magazine editors. They were not impressed and Jenkin's achievement went barely noticed by the public.
 

John Logie Baird in his laboratory



J.L. Baird and his television apparatus

Baird filed a patent for his television design in July of 1923. But it was not until 1924 that he had an actual working prototype. Dubbed the "Televisor," it was a Rube Goldberg-like apparatus. Using an old tea chest as a base, he mounted a motor and attached a home-made Nipkow disc - a cardboard circle cut from a hat box. A darning needle became a spindle, and a discarded biscuit box made a suitable lamp housing. Apart from the motor, his greatest investments were a few bull's-eye lenses, purchased for four pence a piece. Glued together with sealing wax and string, it was a precarious contraption, but it worked. In his quarters, he managed to transmit a silhouette of a Maltese cross two or three yards to a receiver. Although crude, the images could not have been more beautiful to Baird. They proved his basic assumptions were correct.



Schematics of a Baird televisor

 

J.L. Baird with his 1925 apparatus

The same apparatus nowadays

 

Baird built his pioneering equipment using what odds and ends he could lay his hands on, such as an old tea chest, an old bicycle lamp, cardboard from a hat box, an old biscuit tin, darning needles, string and tallow wax. With this he managed to construct a mechanical scanning system for the transmission and reception of images - he received help from local people in order to fund the experiment.

By the end of 1923 John Logie Baird, through sheer determination had finally managed to build what was effectively the world's first complete television transmitter and receiver. Its achievements may today look relatively modest but by the standards of the day it was a technical miracle - the speed of both the transmitter and receiver had to be perfectly synchronised in tandem for an image to be viewable.

The very first transmitted image was that of a simple cross made of cardboard (visible on the right hand side of the picture); the camera and transmitter were a few feet away on the other side of the room. In January 1924 the Daily News reported on this feat, and public interest rapidly grew as a result of this successful experiment. Mr. Twigg the landlord was rather less impressed though - since Baird had electrocuted himself twice and caused a small explosion, he evicted Baird from his lodgings. The first chapter of television history had effectively drawn to a close.


 

John Logie Baird Demonstrates His "Televisor"
at Selfridge's Department Store, Oxford-street, London

In August 1924 Baird moved to London and in April of the following year he unveiled the Televisor at Selfridge's Department Store in London. Awed spectators gathered in a small dark room, straining to see the flickering image of a doll on a screen that was barely four by two inches. Although little more than a silhouette, the image represented a significant achievement. This was the first time a picture had been created from reflected light.


 

Baird with doll heads used
in the first TV demonstrations

At this time, his test subject was a ventriloquist's dummy, "Stooky Bill" which was placed in front of the camera apparatus. Baird later recollected, "The image of the dummy's head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me an almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement".

In October 1925 he succeeded in transmitting full television in his small attic laboratory in Soho, London.These were the true television pictures which picked up reflected light and showed light and shade effects. The first human being to be televised was a frightened teenage office boy, William Taynton, who had to be bribed to stay in front of the hot lights.
 

Of course, television would not have much of a future unless it reproduced motion. Baird's early scanning discs and photoelectronics were simply too slow and insensitive to capture moving objects. But that quickly changed. On January 26, 1926 Baird demonstrated a fully working prototype of mechanical television to members of the Royal Institution at 22 Frith Street, Baird's residence and laboratory. This was the world's first demonstration of true television because it showed moving human faces with tonal gradients and detail. Far from perfect, the images flickered quite a bit, but the individuals on screen were fully recognizable.



In the top-floor garrett in this building, 22 Frith Street, John Logie Baird first constructed and demonstrated his Televisor apparatus.

 

An image from
Baird's Televisor

Early television pictures were about the size of a business card and because of the low resolution, the pictures were limited to head and shoulders. Actors were made up heavily with strange looking cosmetics. Because the camera was very sensitive to infrared light that this had to be done. Blue lipstick, green pale facepowder, all to get some contrast.



Baird and his television apparatus of 1926

In 1926 Baird also demonstrated the use of infrared light as illumination for television and came up with a device he called a Noctovisor. Alexander Russell, writing in the February 5 1927 edition of Nature, described how he and W.R. Crookes were shown Noctovision in action at Baird's laboratory in London on December 23rd 1926: "One of us stayed in the sending room with a laboratory assistant in apparently complete darkness. In the receiving room, on another floor [of the building], the image of the assistant's head, and all the motions he made, could be readily followed." Russell goes on to describe the images as "not so clearly defined as when visible rays were used, but we easily recognised the figures we saw, and made out their action". Baird had tried ultraviolet light as a means of shooting in darkness, but he found that this was damaging to the subject's eyes. His first experiments with infrared used electric fires and on one occasion a dummy actually burst into flames! His successful infrared source was an ordinary light bulb coated with ebonite to block visible radiation.
 

Baird prepares to Noctovise Sir Oliver Lodge

The distinguished scientist Sir Oliver Lodge (the first man to send a signal using radio) was successfully Noctovised at a meeting of the British Association held in Leeds in 1927. Baird wrote: "He came with his daughter and said it was 'amazing, but very hot.' I thought this was a pity, as he was the best subject for television I have ever seen, his white beard and impressive head coming through marvellously well."

It is said that the demonstration of this equipment in Leeds was so exciting that mounted police had to be called in to regulate the queues of people wanting to see it. On another occasion, the then Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, saw Noctovision and, according to Moseley, 'found it difficult to believe'.
 

Baird (standing) and his
assistant with the Noctovisor

By 1929, Baird had refined the system sufficiently for a demonstration of a self-contained infrared viewer on Box Hill in Surrey on August 9th. The device (or one similar) is shown in the photograph at left. A simulated fog made by viewing through a thin piece of ebonite (which is opaque to visible light) was used and the Noctovisor clearly showed lights which were invisible to the unaided eye. The authors of the description of Baird's demonstration on Box Hill, written up in a 1931 book called Television: Today and Tomorrow, were clearly excited by the naval and military possibilities. They wanted this infrared technology to provide a capability for night and fog-bound vision that was, in reality, only achieved by RADAR during World War II. Whether the Noctovisor was what we would now call a Night Vision Scope using near infrared or a Thermal Imager using far infrared is unclear in the book. However, it is likely that the device was a night scope. There was an incident at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) during tests with the Baird system. In 1933 the BBC broadcast an infrared-ray technique that 'stripped' cotton dresses off a line of dancing girls. The press teased the broadcasters about this unintended nudity. 'Scientific progress took an unforseen turn today' wrote the London News Chronicle.


 

On the heels of this triumph, Baird was granted a transmitting license by the British Post Office. Two experimental television stations were established, one in London and one in a neighboring suburb. Funded by a handful of private investors, he continued to make breakthroughs. Using post office telephone lines, Baird sent a "cable" television transmission 438 miles from London to Glasgow in 1927. The following year he transmitted images to the cellar of an amateur radio operator in Hartsdale, New York. It was the first transatlantic demonstration of television. For some time Baird's exploits had captivated the popular imagination. The press hailed him as a visionary and criticized the BBC, still a fledgling radio broadcaster, as inept and behind the times.

Considering him very much an outside competitor, the BBC turned down Baird's requests for a transmitting license. Baird rebutted by first threatening to make pirate television broadcasts in 1928, then actually making them from Berlin in 1929. The BBC soon relented and granted a license. The press criticism and Baird's guerrilla tactics gnawed at J.C.W. Reith, the BBC's general manager, and tainted his perception of Baird. Still, when Baird offered to demonstrate his invention for the BBC in 1929, Reith grudgingly accepted. Baird's system, he acquiesced, had potential. It was the beginning of an uneasy relationship that lasted until 1935.

In July 1928, Baird demonstrated colour television; this still employed the mechanical scanning method, but the scanning wheels contained three spirals of holes with three filters in the primary colours. In this way, three separate coloured pictures were transmitted in rapid succession; the persistence of vision caused the eye of the viewer to "mix" the three primary pictures, so that a coloured moving picture was perceived. Later, a primitive system of stereoscopic (3-dimensional) television was demonstrated.
 

John Logie Baird conceived the first VideoDiscs in 1927, and the apparatus for recording them was photographed for the early  Television Digest in 1928. Baird named his VideoDisc system Phonovision. The apparatus shows how an image of a dummies head can be recorded on the disc, with the scanning apparatus being located behind the opening in the wall that the dummy faces.


 

Baird (staying) with his TV receiver

In September of 1929, Baird, in association with the BBC, began a series of experimental television transmissions. Working from his cramped studio, the project was plagued with technical difficulties. The worst setback was the lack of synchronized sound. Because they had access to only one transmitter, pictures and sound were broadcast alternately. The pictures themselves were minutely small; no larger than a saucer, even when magnified. Anxious to create a commercially viable system, the BBC pressured Baird to perfect the Televisor. They wanted a simple product that could be manufactured cheaply and widely distributed. But Baird's mind leap-frogged to ever more fantastic ideas: color television (demonstrated in 1928); big screen TV; and open air projections for large audiences. BBC management grew uneasy.

Baird saw the Televisor as a prototype, not a finished product. It was replete with bugs and problems. Although BBC engineers had solved the sound synchronization glitch in 1930, the device was still crude; its picture flickering and tiny. In its current state, the Televisor could be no more than a novelty for a handful of amateur radio enthusiasts. Reluctantly, Baird prepared to mass produce the Televisor. Short of capital, he sought financing from Gaumont British, a formidable conglomerate holding company that owned a large chain of movie theaters and was very interested in showing large screen television. After that, the future of Baird Television passed forever beyond his control.
 
Surviving examples of the Baird "Televisor"

External view of the TV receiver

Internal design

The early television pictures were only a few square inches in area and Baird was under pressure to provide something more comparable in size with the cinema screen. This was achieved in 1930 in a demonstration of "large screen television" (in fact 6 ft x 3 ft) from the Baird studio to an audience at the London Coliseum Cinema. The screen consisted of an array of 2100 small flashlamp bulbs. This big screen was later replaced by a "flying spot" method, with the picture being traced out in strips by a powerful beam of light deflected on a rotating mirror drum. This technique was successfully used in the live showing of the 1932 Derby at the Metropole Cinema, Victoria. The overall picture size was 9 ft wide by 7 ft high (2.7 x 2.1 m) and it was formed by joining three pictures 3 x 7 ft (0.9 x 2.1 m) sent over three separate telephone lines. By the late 1930s electronic projection television receivers had been developed by Baird, but cinema television was stopped after the start of World War II. It was resumed in some of the London theatres for several years after World War II, under the aegis of the Rank Organization; but the demand for cinema television fell off as the private ownership of television sets increased. Although television has not been adopted in movie theatres, the showing of films on television has become a big business; Rank Cintel (which had evolved from Baird Television) is one of the leading manufacturers of telecine equipment.
 

In 1931 John Logie Baird married the concert pianist Margaret Albu. The couple had two children, Diana and Malcolm.



A pencil portrait of John Logie Baird

 

Produced in kit-form, some 20,000 Baird Televisors sold across England and the Continent. By 1930, a British or West European television enthusiast could buy this televisor for home reception for about 18 pounds. It seemed that the mechanical system might have a foothold in the coveted European market. But the BBC was already studying a rival system based on the work of Vladimir Zworykin. In the 1920s, a number of American companies began developing electronic image scanners based on the cathode ray tube. In 1933 Zworykin, working for RCA (Radio Corporation of America), invented a revolutionary device called the Iconoscope. Delivering superior resolution with almost no irritating flicker, the Iconoscope was a formidable challenger to the humble Nipkow disc. In 1933 Baird was told that the BBC would end its relationship with him the following year. Mechanical television, they said, was no match for an all-electronic scanning system. In an arrangement with the newly incorporated EMI (Electric and Musical Industries Ltd.), the BBC developed their own version of the new technology.

Despite the compelling display, Baird was not an easy convert to electronic television. He was convinced that his mechanical system could be synthesized with the Image Dissector developed by Farnsworth to create a superior hybrid. In 1935 he succeeded in demonstrating a 700 line picture for the press. By 1936 Baird Television was in serious trouble because of BBC's growing preference for EMI. Though Baird's electro-mechanical TV now produced 240 lines per frame versus EMI's 405 line capability, witnesses said they could not see a difference between the two transmissions, possibly because the 405 system was on the wrong carrier wave. Nevertheless, the BBC was very close to penning an official contract with EMI. Housed in a studio in the Crystal Palace, Baird and his technicians were increasingly isolated.

Other experiments conducted by Baird at this time involved the transmission, reflection and detection of radio waves which determined the distance of an object. According to Loxdale, Baird did some of these experiments in his laboratory at 8 Queen's Avenue in Hastings, and the inventor later conducted further experiments of a similar nature from a local hilltop. The significance of these tests is that they were very early examples of experimentation with a technology that was later to become famous during World War Two - namely, radar.
 

Baird on the left

In 1937-38, Baird began to drift from the day-to-day operations of Baird Television. He preferred to work in his home studio where he could indulge his imagination, unconstrained by the politics of business.


Photograph of John Logie Baird with Sir J. Ambrose Fleming at the Long Acre Studio.

 

Outside Broadcast Van of Baird Television Ltd. The camera was inside the coach registrating the view in the mirror on the left. To take a different shot all they could do was changing the position/angle of the mirror.


 
Pictures show Baird with TV receivers of different types

As Hitler raged across Europe, Great Britain poured its resources into the war effort. Electronic components became scarce and Baird had to forage for parts. As ever, his ambitions ran high. By proclaiming he would build the first commercially viable color television, he put himself in direct competition with American monoliths like RCA. Furthermore, he claimed the system would have 600-line pictures, nearly 200 more than EMI's 405-line standard.
 

Baird with a TV unit containing
already a cathode ray tube (CRT)

Baird at last abandoned mechanical systems in favor of electronics. But even here he left his own indelible mark. Images were created by scanning subjects with an intense beam of light from a cathode ray tube. The light passed through spinning colored filters before being relayed to photo-electric cells. A variation of the "flying-spot" scanning method he'd developed and patented in the '20s, it was a brilliant success. By interlacing several 200-line scans he achieved a 600-line picture.

In 1938 at the Dominion Theater, an audience of 3,000 watched color television images on a 12x9 foot screen. These were the first color pictures ever shown publicly. Yet even these highly public achievements could not change the reality of the market place.

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3 1939. Two days earlier, BBC television had been abruptly shut down, and the British television industry was out of action for the duration of the war. The British government placed severe restrictions on TV signals, fearing that German bombers would use TV signals to home in on London. Eventually, the British used TV signals as a means of jamming enemy bomber guidance systems.

Baird Television Ltd. went into liquidation, and Baird found himself to be, in his own words, "a free agent." Left with scarce resources and no hope of procuring benevolent corporate backers, Baird was on his own. Financing research from his savings, he enjoyed a curious sense of freedom. Like the old London garret days, his work was fueled only by passion and insatiable curiosity. Sydney Moseley and Donald Flamm urged Baird to move with his family to the United States where he could continue his research in better conditions, but he politely declined. However he moved with the family from London to Cornwall, 250 miles west of London, where they stayed until 1945. Baird's refusal to move to the USA at the outbreak of World War II may well have been due to his involvement in secret work. During the war he received £1,000 per year from Cable and Wireless Co., the crown corporation which controlled all official communications in Britain. The services performed for this fee are still not known exactly, but his work is believed to have been on the use of television methods for high-speed coded signalling.

In December of 1940 Baird demonstrated the television in his home before an influential group of journalists. Encouraged by their enthusiastic praise, Baird set to work on a stereoscopic color TV. Despite the significance of his accomplishments, neither this early form of high definition television or stereoscope were commercially produced. The systems championed by EMI and RCA would set the standard for decades to come.

In 1943 Baird appeared before the Hankey Committee, a government task force examining the future of television. He encouraged them to consider high definition systems of a 1000 lines or more for post-war commercial development. He also urged them to pursue stereoscopic TV. In failing health, he no longer had the stamina to finish these projects, though he had succeeded in demonstrating all of them. The Hankey Committee's report mostly concurred and recommended the overturning of lesser standards put forth by the Selsdon Committee in 1937.
 

Baird with a big TV set

Baird Large-Screen Television Set shown in 1947

 

John Logie Baird monument,
situated on Helensburgh's
seafront, the place of his birth

After falling victim to a heart attack, Baird had time to write his autobiography while he was convalescing, but lived only another five years. He died in Bexhill, Sussex, U.K., on 14 June 1946, at the age of 58. Baird did not die in misery. After a lifetime spent battling with illness, as well as big business, he died on the brink of his greatest achievements, having persuaded the British authorities to adopt his proposals for post-war TV, based on his masterpiece the Telechrome, the blueprint of modern colour TV, patented in 1944.

The work of John Logie Baird comprised a crucial break-through in television technology. Today, 95% of modern TV is pre-recorded, an approach recommended by Baird. A large amount of contemporary TV utilizes the film scanning system of Rank-Cintel, which absorbed Baird's Cinema Television. Baird's single electronic gun CRT development work in 1945 was eventually followed in the design of the Sony Trinitron tube. In a manner that today seems commonplace, his initial mechanical solution was quickly supplanted by newer technology, but his inventive work continued and his legacy continues. Baird succeeded in perfecting visual transmission systems others had long abandoned. His single-minded tenacity proves that most obstacles are no greater than the limits of the imagination.


This text has been compiled from the biographies of Baird available in the Internet:
( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 ).

(made on March 12, 2003)
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