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John Logie Baird

1888, Helensburgh, Scotland
June, 1946, city, country

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John Logie Baird 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. Lonely, driven, tireless and often poor, the native Scot defined the pioneering spirit of scientific inquiry.
During his long career, John Baird created a host of television technologies. Among them, phonovision, a forerunner of the video recorder (which largely still relies on mechanical scanning); noctovision, an infra-red spotting system for "seeing" in the dark; open-air television, a theater-projection system; stereoscopic color TV; and the first high definition color TV. According to present-day TV historians, Baird only pursued mechanical scanning to get a television system working as quickly as possible. He changed to electronic scanning in the early 1930s and refined the system to a high degree. Before he died in 1946, Baird was drafting plans for a television with 1,000 lines of resolution and he had earlier patents for television with up to 1,700 lines of resolution using interlacing technology. The world would not catch up with him until 1990 when the Japanese introduced a TV with 1125 lines of resolution per frame.


Born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland, Baird learned a Calvinist work ethic from his father, a Presbyterian minister. Not inclined toward the clergy or the sea, Baird realized he could do little to support himself in his homeland. Like so many other young Scots of his era, he eventually sought his fortune in London, though some of his early, highly significant research was conducted on  the south coast of England.

For many years, Baird worked quietly in business, but his talents and passions never ran toward a professional career. 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 an 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.

In 1884 Nipkow patented a primitive television device called the Elektrisches Teleskop. At the core of this apparatus was a disc punctured with a spiral pattern of 24 holes. As the disc spun, light reflected from a subject passed through the holes and stimulated a photo-sensitive selenium cell. The cell, in turn, produced an electric current which charged a light source in a receiver. In front of this spun another disc, perfectly synchronized with the one in the transmitter. Light passing from the disc was viewed through an eye piece. The result was a flickering reproduction of the transmitted image.

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 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.

No money and a great idea

Spending his days in a tedious business career left Baird little time. He tinkered at night, but made scarce progress. Upon returning from a trip to Trinidad in 1920, he 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, he 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.

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. 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.

Sealing wax and silhouettes: the Televisor

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.

In August 1924 he 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.

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.

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.

Baird and the BBC

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. One journalist went so far as to suggest that the BBC be dismantled and replaced by Baird Television Limited.

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 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.

Produced in kit-form, some 20,000 Baird Televisors sold across England and the Continent. 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.

Lost in a vacuum: The Iconoscope comes of age

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, 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, the BBC developed their own version of the new technology.

In 1935, EMI unveiled the Emitron camera tube, a device that was uncannily similar to Zworykin's Iconoscope. This was no accident. RCA and EMI had a cross-licensing arrangement, so it is likely that they shared technology. Their goal was to dominate the global market with a single television system. Upstarts like Baird would simply disappear in their wake.

A tale of two tubes: Farnsworth's Image Dissector

Baird was determined that mechanical television could work. He was, of course, aware of the advances made with cathode ray tubes, but had neither the inclination or financing to pursue it. But Gaumont British had other plans. Anxious about the potential of the Emitron tube, they urged Baird to seek a licensing agreement from Philo T. Farnsworth, a young American who created a device called the Image Dissector.

Farnsworth conceived his television system in 1923, while still in high school. Utilizing a cathode ray tube, his design predated Zworykin's Iconoscope by a decade. By 1927 the boy wonder had transmitted straight line images from his first Image Dissector. In 1934, the year he met Baird, he was deeply entangled in patent litigation suits with RCA. By licensing the Image Dissector in Great Britain, he hoped to sidestep RCA and claim a piece of the European market.

Baird made a point to be present in London for Farnsworth's demonstration of the Image Dissector and was stunned by what he saw.

The best resolution Baird had achieved was 180 lines per frame. Farnsworth's Image Dissector displayed an astounding 300 lines per frame. Gaumont British's executives were duly impressed. They signed an agreement with Farnsworth and gave Baird the task of putting the Image Dissector at the core of a new television system.

Down in flames: the end of Baird TV

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 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.

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.

In a desperate move, Gaumont British brought Farnsworth to London. They hoped he could help Baird back on track before the BBC committed to EMI.

Not long after Farnsworth departed, the Crystal Palace burned to the ground in a fire that was likely caused by faulty wiring. Within days, EMI's television system was officially adopted by the BBC. Baird of England operated profitably for several years, manufacturing television receivers. Operating from a claustrophobic studio in a surviving section of the Crystal Palace, the inventor enjoyed the occasional triumph.

In 1938 at the Dominion Theater, an audience of 3,000 watched color television images on a 12 X 9 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. In 1940, Baird's company changed its name to Cinema Television. At the outbreak of war with Germany, 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.

Phoenix from the ashes: Don Quixote rides again

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.

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 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 December of 1940 he 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 died in June of 1946. 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.


Related Resources

Pioneers of Electronic and Mechanical Television
Influential Figures in the Development of Television
The John Logie Baird Show
Who Invented Television
Television Collection


Author not Attributed; "John Logie Baird Demonstrates Fog-piercing 'Noctovisor' in England"; New York Times; 11 August 1929

Author not Attributed; "Demonstration of 'Tele-talkies'"; New York Times; 8 September 1929.

Author Not Attributed; "Talking Film Transmitted in London by Baird Television Development Company"; New York Times; 20 August 1929.

Author not Attributed; "Color Transmitted in London Demonstration of J.L. Baird's System"; New York Times; 5 February 1938

Author not Attributed; "John Logie Baird Dies; Television Leader"; New York Times; 15 June 1946.

Author not Attributed; "Television Pioneer"; New York Times Week in Review; 16 June 1946.

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