TV Pioneer

If you enjoy sitting down and watching Boardwalk Empire or Downton Abbey on TV, you should really take a moment to thank John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer and inventor who successfully transmitted the first television picture with a greyscale image on October 2, 1925. Not bad for someone who never finished college.

Baird was born in Helensburgh, Argylle and Bute and studied at the University of Glasgow. Unfortunately World War I interrupted his studies, and he never returned to graduate. Instead, he started building on the work of earlier inventors in the field of picture transmission. In 1923, Baird built the world’s first working television set out of an old hatbox, a pair of scissors, darning needles, bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest, and sealing wax, officially making him the MacGuyver of television. This early television was only able to transmit silhouette images, but it was impressive enough for him to hold three weeks of demonstrations at Selfridges in London starting in March 1925.

That October, he managed to transmit the first greyscale image: the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy. Once he’d managed that, he grabbed a worker from the office downstairs and scanned him to see what a human face would look like. That worker, 20-year-old William Taynton, became the first person to be televised in a full tonal range. Excited by his new breakthrough, Baird went to the Daily Express newspaper to promote it. The news editor thought he was insane and sent a staffer to get rid of him.

Undeterred, Baird repeated his transmission for members of the Royal Institution and a reporter from The Times on January 26, 1926. He’d improved the scan rate of the images, and this was the first demonstration of a television system that could broadcast live moving images with tone graduation.

Baird wasn’t done yet. In 1927 he transmitted a long-distance television signal between London and Glasgow. Shortly thereafter, he established the Baird Television Development Company Ltd., which made the first transatlantic television transmission, from London to Hartsdale, New York, as well as the first television program for the BBC. He would later join forces with Bernard Natan to establish France’s first television company. He developed an early video recording device, which he called Phonovision, in 1928. On July 3, 1928, he demonstrated the world’s first color transmission, and in 1931 he televised the first live transmission of the Epsom Derby. He also demonstrated a theatre television system, with what was probably the world’s first bigscreen TV, at the London Coliseum and in Berlin, Paris, and Stockholm.

From 1929 to 1932, the BBC used Baird’s system to transmit television programs, but faster models soon won out, and in 1937 the BBC ceased to use the Baird system, put off by the cumbersome cameras it required.

Not content to go gently into that good night, Baird kept experimenting and inventing. He showed a color television using a cathode ray tube in 1939, and his method was adopted by CBS and RCA. In 1941, he patented and demonstrated a 3-D TV, and in August 1944 he gave the world’s first demonstration of a fully electronic color television display. As World War II drew to a close, he went to the committee appointed to oversee the resumption of television broadcasts and tried to persuade them to use the color system he’d developed as the post-war broadcast standard. The picture quality on his system would have been comparable to HDTV (think of that next time you’re looking at some grainy 1940’s-era footage!). The committee lost interest in the project and the standard they adopted (less than half the resolution of Baird’s) remained in place until 1985 in some areas. Color wasn’t even introduced until 1967. A large-screen, 3-D TV wasn’t demonstrated again until 2008, more than 60 years after Baird did it.

Baird died in 1946, long before color TV or some of his other innovations became mainstream. He hasn’t been forgotten, though: in 2002 he was ranked 44 in the list of 100 Greatest Britons, and he’s also been named as one of the 10 greatest Scottish scientists in history. And now we at the Armchair Anglophile will remember him as one of the earliest great television pioneers. Thanks, John!

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