John Logie Baird
1888 - 1946
John Logie Baird is remembered by some as the 'Father of
Television' and by others as merely one of a number of
independent inventors of the technology. Neither view appears
completely accurate but there is no doubt that it was 'JLB' who
brought the idea of television to the attention of the world.
Baird was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, on August 13, 1888, the
fourth, and youngest, child of the Reverend John Baird. By the
age of 13, he had experimented with remote-controlled
photography, converted the house to electric light and
constructed a small telephone exchange that connected several
In 1906 he went to study Electrical Engineering at Glasgow and
West of Scotland Technical College. Because of chronic
ill-health related to thyroid problems, he was not accepted for
military service when war came in 1914. He tried his hands at
different businesses, including the 'Baird Undersock' and
jam-making in Trinidad, but returned to Britain, initially to
Folkestone and then, by late 1922, Hastings, where many early
experiments into 'seeing by wireless' - television - were
At the heart of Baird's system was a rotating disc containing
spirals of holes (or lenses) through which a beam of light
passed to scan the object. The poor quality of photocells
limited Baird's early equipment to sending shadows and outlines.
He was able to apply for a patent on July 26, 1923, but although
the BBC expressed interest, they would not participate in his
work. Following a workshop explosion in the autumn of 1924,
Baird was forced to leave his workshop in Hastings and move to
Over the following year or so, Baird improved the quality of his
equipment until around October 1925 he was able to transmit the
30-line image of a ventriloquist's dummy named Stooky Bill
across the room, and then the first image of a human being (the
face of office boy William Taynton) sent by television. A
company, Television Limited, was formed, and on 26 January,
1926, Baird demonstrated the system in public, gathering vocal
press support and exciting interest in television. In 1928 he
succeeded in sending images across the Atlantic.
Baird made test transmissions, but the way forward was to
broadcast a television service to the public, and the only way
of doing that in Britain at the time was via the fledgling BBC,
headed by John Reith. Reith was not in favour of television, but
following unceasing lobbying of the Postmaster General, from 30
September 1929 Baird broadcast tests on the 2LO transmitter from
his studio facility at Savoy Hill, outside normal broadcasting
hours. Baird also sold 'Televisor' sets to receive the
There were notable firsts, 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. The first outside broadcast followed; the Derby was
televised live in June 1931 and again the following year.
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. Meanwhile, Baird had married Margaret Albu in 1931.
But things were not looking good at Baird Television Limited. In
severe financial difficulties, control of the company passed to
a subsidiary of the Gaumont-British Film Corporation. A year
later, in a mid-1933 boardroom coup, Baird was relieved of his
duties on the BTL board, although he retained the nominal title
of Managing Director. He was effectively banished to his new
house in Sydenham, South London, with access to some Company
facilities and his own extensive laboratory.
Baird Television Limited moved from Long Acre to the Crystal
Palace in July 1933. VHF aerials at the top of the south tower,
680 feet above sea level and in sight of seven counties, were
installed to transmit high-resolution pictures. BTL leased
40,000 square feet under the south transept, installing offices,
three extremely well equipped studios and laboratories, and
transmitters. Baird's subsidiary in Germany developed the
Intermediate Film Technique for 'almost-live' transmission,
using a cine camera and 17.5 mm film, developed in just under a
minute and scanned with a rotating disc.
On September 12, 1933, Baird demonstrated 120-line, 25
frames-per-second telecine equipment at the British
Association's annual meeting, and later that month 120-line test
transmissions were made from Crystal Palace. On March 12, 1934,
180-line transmissions were shown on a receiver with no moving
parts, employing a 12-inch cathode ray tube.
In 1934, the decision was taken to appoint a committee to advise
the Postmaster General on matters concerning television.
Following Parliamentary assent, this was to become the
Television Committee that would be headed by Lord Selsdon: its
first meeting was held on 29 May.
Meanwhile, the Baird Company announced that it would approach
the GPO for a licence to begin an independent, high definition
television service. Baird director Major Church noted, "...we
are technically ready to provide a programme of 180-line
television from our station at the Crystal Palace, to serve the
whole of the Greater London area."
The Television Committee issued its report in late January 1935,
proposing a high-definition VHF television service to be
operated alternately by BTL and Marconi-EMI, and along with
other political considerations, it is certainly possible that
Baird was included at least partially to help discourage the
company from carrying out its apparent threat to go independent.
The BBC's high definition Television Service from Alexandra
Palace in North London was launched officially on 2 November
1936. But then, on the evening of Monday, 30 November 1936, fire
broke out in the Crystal Palace main building and spread rapidly
to engulf the majority of the site, including the Baird
facility. To add insult to devastation, on 16 December the
Television Advisory Committee meeting decided to abandon the use
of the Baird system in transmissions from Alexandra Palace, and
use the Marconi-EMI system alone.
Work did not stop, however. The Baird Company went on to install
experimental Intermediate Film transmission systems in military
aircraft, along with developing large-screen TV, and colour
television transmissions were made from the South Tower. There
were tests of a scheme to use 600-line television to broadcast
newsreels to Gaumont cinemas around the country.
Baird demonstrated sequential-frame colour television, first 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.
With the advent of war in September 1939, Gaumont British closed
down BTL. Baird's contract was terminated and his work continued
largely unaided until his death. But in 1941 he refined the
mechanical system to transmit colour stereoscopic TV images
using revolving shutters and Red/Green/Blue sectored discs.
Then, finally, there was the ingenious all-electronic 'Telechrome'
colour TV system, for which a receiver was first demonstrated to
the press on 16 August 1944.
However, despite the undoubted brilliance of both the colour and
stereoscopic television systems, they were never implemented
commercially, and John Logie Baird died before his time at the
age of 57, on June 14, 1946.
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This web page was last updated on:
08 December, 2008