Seeing by Wireless. The Life of John Logie Baird

John Logie Baird gave the world its first real television pictures. And when he was born in a small town on the Firth of Clyde at a time when science and technology were in their infancy, who could have foretold what his future was to be? The son of a Church of Scotland Minister, Baird was born in the year 1888, the youngest of four children. The family lived in a medium sized stone-built house in Helensborough, and in a household dominated by the church, Baird's scientific aspirations often caused lively debate.

At the age of two Baird became very ill and poor health, particularly respiratory problems, dogged him for the rest of his life. This wasn't helped by his being sent to Larchfield Private School in Helensborough, a would-be public school where sport and cold showers came first and academic subjects a poor second. Baird was always near the bottom of his class. Yet his inventiveness shone through in other ways.

 

It was around the time that the telephone was coming in and one of Baird's early scientific exploits was to set up an 'unofficial' telephone system between some of the neighbouring houses where his friends lived. Baird slung wires across the streets from the trees to create a private telephone exchange, but he soon moved on to his newest hobby: the installation of electric light.

 

Young Baird's exploits did not go unnoticed

The Helensborough Times reported that the Baird family were 'enjoying the amenities of electric light thanks to the ingenuity of a youthful member of the household.' It was through his experimentation with electricity that the idea of producing television first occurred to Baird. But his early experiments resulted mainly in bad smells and burnt fingers, so he moved on to other projects.

 

When he left school Baird entered a technical college in Glasgow, where he studied mechanical engineering. It was a hard grind and his health seriously held him back. It was also around this time that Baird had his first encounter with John Reith, who would later become the first director of the BBC. Upon leaving the technical college, Baird went on to Glasgow University, after being pronounced unfit for any kind of service in first world war.

 

After university, Baird worked as a mains engineer at the Clyde Valley Electrical Company. This was an unpleasant job which came to an end shortly after he tried to make artificial diamonds on the premises by exploding a rod of carbon embedded in concrete.

 

Upon being fired from the Electrical Company, Baird sought to make a living with a number of different ventures. After making a modest fortune, Baird moved to Trinidad where he hoped his ill health would improve. True to his innovative nature, Baird set up a jam making factory shortly after he arrived on the island. But again, the success of his venture left much to be desired and he soon returned to Britain. Shortly after, in a lodging house in Hastings, Baird found himself with a lot of spare time on his hands and he started to read about photo electricity. The old idea of television came back to him.

 

In 1923 Baird transmitted the image of a Maltese cross

As he continued to improve his invention he gave regular demonstrations to the press, in order to gain financial backing. The work continued in his makeshift laboratory in a converted office in Hastings. But after an accident involving 2000 volts and which caused a minor explosion, Baird was promptly evicted from the premises.

 

Undeterred, Baird continued to hone his invention in a new laboratory in London's Soho, and after finding sufficient financial support he set up the company, Television Ltd, and experimented with televising the human face, or at least with the head of a ventriloquist's dummy called Stucky Bill. And in October 1925, Baird finally had the breakthrough he had been searching for all those years before.

 

But Baird still had to convince the scientific community that television had been achieved. On the 26th of January, 1926 he invited over 40 members of the Royal Institution to a demonstration. They turned up in full evening dress and each of them was given an opportunity to be televised. It is hard to know now how many of Baird's audience that night actually realised they were witnessing the birth of a great industry.

 

Baird continued to demonstrate to anyone who would watch and in February 1926 he moved to Motograph House. Sending moving pictures from one room to another had its limitations and in order to be made available to a wider audience, television had to be sent through the medium of wireless. Baird applied for a license to transmit television and in August 1926, he received the call sign G22V.

 

But Baird's inventions were not only focussed on television

He invented a system for seeing in the dark using infrared rays, and an early form of recorded television. Later he would go on to help develop radar, which was, of course, vital to Britain's survival in WW2.

 

During 1927, Baird's monopoly on television was broken when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company transmitted from Washington DC to New York. By that time, Baird had formed a new company, The Baird Television Development Company, and determined not to be beaten by AT&T, Baird sent his chief engineer back to Scotland with a television receiver. Pictures were sent over a telephone line from Baird's laboratory in London and received in a hotel room in Glasgow. But Baird wanted to go further and his next step was a major one. In February 1928, he decided to transmit pictures across the Atlantic, well over 30 years before the Telstar satellite was launched.

 

After the war, Baird and his family went to live in Bexhill, Sussex. At this point, his health had really begun to break down. Baird spent more and more time in his bed and aged 58, the pioneer of television, John Logie Baird, died peacefully in his sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

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