John Logie Baird was born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland. He was the fourth child of John, a Clergyman, and Jesse Baird. Throughout his teenage years he was inspired by the scientific and futuristic stories of HG Wells, one of which featured a description of a table-top television.
These stories fuelled a fascination of electronics and entrepreneurship and Baird’s teenage years were spent conducting experiments and building inventions.
He studied Engineering at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College but his time there was interrupted by the outbreak of World War 1. He tried to enlist for the army but was rejected due to ill health.
Following this, Baird tried his hand at many business ventures including:
- Working at Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company. During his time here he attempted to manufacture diamonds out of carbon using electricity!
- Inventing a cure for piles. This failed venture left Baird unable to sit down for several days!
- Starting a business called ‘The Baird Undersock’. Due to illness, Baird ended this business in 1918 after making 15 times more than he could have at the power company.
- Moving to Trinidad to start a Jam Factory. He returned to London in 1920 after realising he couldn’t stand the climate.
Upon his return he was still brimming with ideas for inventions, but one idea in particular was about to take precedence – television.
First Working Television
In 1923 Baird rented a workshop in Hastings and began to experiment with transmitting moving images along with sounds. Following his previous business ventures he lacked funding and a lot of his equipment included household items such as a hat box, some darning needles and glue. He successfully developed a system that transmitted shapes and shadows from one place to another. One day, when working on his invention in the workshop, Baird accidentally gave himself an electric shock and survived with
only burns. The landlord wasn’t impressed and asked him to leave!
In 1925, Selfridges Department Store invited Baird to give a three week demonstration of his invention. This was the first time that Baird had demonstrated what he had been working on to the public. His demonstration
involved reproducing the outline of a cross shape, and although this may seem
simple to us now, it was revolutionary as at the time. At this point in history only 1 in 1000 people had a radio set!
With the payment from his demonstrations, Baird invested in a home-made laboratory that was located at 22 Frith Street in Soho. This is what this address looks like today, and his laboratory would have been in the rooms above Bar Italia, a commemorative plaque remains on the outside wall.
It was in this laboratory that Baird made a significant breakthrough in his mission to transmit moving images with sound. The lighting Baird had to use was so bright that there was a risk of setting fire to the subject! To overcome this he used the head of a ventriloquist dummy which he named ‘Stookie Bill’. The system was mechanical and scanned images using spinning discs with tiny holes. The light that went through the holes was turned into an electrical signal which travelled down a wire into a television set to show the image of Stookie Bill on screen.
In October 1925, he finally achieved ‘half-tone’ television pictures.
– John Logie Baird
On the 26th of January 1926, Baird invited distinguished scientists from the Royal Institution and a reporter from The Times to visit his laboratory and witness his latest advancement in his invention. The guests were invited into his small laboratory a few people at a time. They saw the image of Stookie Bill and then took turns to be “televised” in the intense floodlighting. Baird describes the scene in his memoirs:
In one room was a large whirling disc, a most dangerous device,
had they known it, liable to burst at any minute with showers of broken glass… One of the visitors who was being transmitted had a long white beard, part of which blew into the wheel. Fortunately he escaped with the loss of a certain amount of hair. He was a thorough sportsman and took the accident in good part and insisted on continuing the experiment and having his face transmitted.
Two days after the event an article appeared from the reporter present at the event:
– The Times Reporter
Baird continued to build on his success with several breakthroughs in television:
1927 – Live television pictures were broadcast over 438 miles from London to Glasgow by telephone line and he developed the Baird Television Development Company (BTDC)
1928 – The first transatlantic television transmission took place between London and New York using short-wave radio
1928 – He demonstrated the world’s first colour transmission
The BBC originally adopted Baird’s mechanical television system but dropped it in 1937 in favour of an electronic version that had been developed by his rival company, Marconi-EMI.
In 1931 Baird married 43-year old South African Pianist, Margaret Albu. They had two children, Diana and Malcom.
Baird suffered a stroke and died on June 14, 1946 in Bexhill-on-Sea in England. He is buried with his mother, father and wife in Helensburgh Cemetery.
John Logie Baird is remembered as one as one of Scotland’s greatest engineers and a pioneer in television technology. His legacy lives on in many ways, not just in the historical sense but as an example to encourage the younger generation to persevere and innovate.
Since his passing he has been inducted into the Honour Roll of the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) in recognition of his lifelong contributions and accomplishments.
The Australian Logie Awards are named after him and are considered the Australian counterpart to the Emmy Awards in America.
This statue of Stookie Bill is displayed at Helensburgh’s Outdoor Museum to commemorate Baird as a local and national treasure.
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