Skip to comments.John Logie Baird
Posted on 10/30/2005 8:42:23 AM PST by 1066AD
Great Scots - A to Z
Thu 13 Jan 2005
John Logie Baird working on his early television apparatus
John Logie Baird 1888-1946 Born: Helensburgh
A CURSE as much as a blessing, television must surely rank as one of the most all-pervasive and important devices of our modern age, and the man credited with inventing the first practical version of it is John Logie Baird.
Baird was born in Helensburgh, a small coastal town in the west of Scotland on 14 August 1888. He was one of four children raised by his mother, Jessie, and his minister father John. As a child, Baird demonstrated his budding engineering prowess by installing not only a telephone exchange in his home but also a system of electric lighting.
His adult education began when he took a diploma in engineering at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde. He then went on to Glasgow University to commute the diploma to a degree. Although obtaining the diploma, he did not complete his time at Glasgow, his studies being interrupted by the beginning of the First World War in August 1914. Although Baird was found to be unfit for military service having suffered a serious illness at the age of two and plagued by lung problems throughout his life he was able to take up a position as an engineer at the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company. He resigned from his post (before being sacked) when he apparently blacked out half of Glasgow following a failed attempt to manufacture diamonds from coal. Baird was, it seems, a natural inventor responsible for products such as damp-proof socks, the 'Baird patent Undersock'.
After the war's end, profits from these inventions paid for a trip to Trinidad, where he planned to make his fortune producing jam. This was not a success. All the while he had been intrigued with the idea of making a machine to show moving images, so he soon returned to Britain to resume experiments with what was to eventually become television.
Baird moved to Hastings on the south coast of England and began trials with an optical scanning system known as the Nipkow disc (named after its German inventor, Paul Nipkow). This disc used a series of holes to dissect an image into a series of lines which are then put together by the eye due to persistence of vision. Display was from the light of a neon bulb which had disc spinning in front of it. The system was known as electro-mechanical television because of the mechanical action of the disc to capture the image.
There were several scientists aiming to produce working television systems at the time, some with extremely good claims to be co-inventors along with Baird. Nipkow had himself patented a proposed form of television in 1884. His system was similar to Baird's eventual design, but the state of existing technology was not sufficiently advanced to produce a working machine. Other candidates are Russians Boris Rosing and Vladimir Zworkin whose research was aimed at producing a fully electronic system without the use of spinning discs. Finally, there was Philo Farnsworth, an American inventor, who was the first to combine both an electronic method of capturing an image with an electronic way of displaying it. This method would eventually go on to be the method used for all television broadcasting.
However, Baird still remains the first to produce moving television images. After numerous accidents and failures, he eventually achieved success in 1925, being able to show a crude image of a ventriloquist's dummy (named Stooky Bill. 'Stooky' is a Scots term for plaster). A more formal demonstration was given to members of The Royal Institution and reporters on 26 January 1926 in the Soho district of London. A blue plaque now marks the site of the historic demonstration.
The BBC stood behind Baird's 30-line Televisor system, using it in 1929 for the company's first experimental broadcast. Baird Television Ltd started public broadcasts from 1930 and then in 1932 the BBC took over these broadcasts. Baird's system remained in operation until after trials starting November 1936 ended with the BBC choosing a more practical and effective Marconi-EMI electronic version of television. By that time Baird was estranged from the day to day running of the business of Baird Television Ltd (BTL) anyway.
It is often forgotten how comparatively sophisticated television was in the 1920s and 30s. Baird was capable of making transatlantic transmissions as early as 1928 and three years later produced the first outdoor broadcast with coverage of the Epsom Derby. He also developed colour television and stereoscopic broadcast systems as well as a distant forerunner of the video recording system called the Phonodisc.
Baird was married in 1931 to Margaret Albu, a concert pianist. The couple had two children. But the ill health that had dogged Baird for years finally caught up with him: he had a heart attack in the early 1940s and in February 1946 suffered a stroke. After struggling on with various projects, he passed away on 14 June 1946 at age 57.
Dr Adrian Hills contributed to this article
I learned as a child that John Logie Baird was the inventor of television. It wasn't until much later that that fact was confused with the attribution of that dubious honor to Philo Farnsworth. Like most complex inventions, each successor stood on the shoulders of those who came before, although in the case of TV, the use to which the invention was put is a source of tragedy.
And to this day, there's dozens of talking dummy heads on tv.
I noticed a quote from the conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: "It has been my lot to have found myself in many distant lands. I have never been in one without finding a Scotchman, and I never found a Scotchman who was not at the head of the poll."
All due respect to J.L.B., but 30-line ca. 10 fps video would never have been widely adopted, even if a full electronic system had taken a couple of additional decades to develop.
In the event, Baird was visibly shaken when he visited the EMI labs around 1936 to see how close a full electronic system was to being implemented. It was at that time he knew that the mechanical system's days were numbered.
Baird's invention was a ridiculous electro-mechanical contraption, yet the BBC did have some commitment to it. To get out from under it they held a competition, and Farnsworth, among others, showed up with a prototype of modern electronic television.
I learned all this on a PBS show about the history of TV. They interviewed Farnsworth's widow, who said she was in the room where Farnsworth's demo was set up and Baird walked by the door and was captivated by the image. He walked slowly toward it, stared at it for a while, then turned and left, never saying a word.
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