The Arrival of Television
The evening before, he had run through a whole chain of experiments and tests, with neon lights, scanning discs, clusters of glowing, blinking valves, photo-electric cells. The equipment which he had made for himself from Government surplus radio equipment, cardboard boxes, bicycle lamps, had been altered and replaced a dozen times. The only survivor was Bill. Bill had attended each one of John Baird’s experiments, since 1924, since the fateful day in Hastings when Baird had succeeded in transmitting, for two yards, the image of a Maltese Cross.
Bill had been there as a mute, sympathetic witness, black eyes gleaming in the flickering light of the transmitter, mouth in a permanent, foolish grin.
Now it was the second of October; the year was 1925. Outside in London there was fog; the damp seeped in through the shutters.
John Baird switched on the apparatus in one room, there was a mounting whine as the motor gained speed, overshot, came back to normal; the filaments in the little “bottles” lit up with a dull-red glow. He sat Bill upright in his chair.
A few strides and he was in the next room; the second motor was humming into synchronization with the first. He tuned in this “receiver”, got a pink rectangle in his viewing box, focused it. Nervously, he ran back to the other room, adjusted the light over Bill’s head. The dummy’s eyes lit up. For a moment they seemed to flash with a human intellect, to belong to an active, thinking partner, not to a ventriloquist’s cast-off. Many times now, the round silhouette of Bill’s head had been transmitted by this strange equipment, with eyes and nose showing as black blobs, but there had been no gradation, nothing between white and black, on the receiver screen.
Baird went to the receiver, bent down, stared into the viewing box. At first, there was only a confused pink glow, streaked with black bars. There was always a few seconds of this while the apparatus warmed up, while receiver, transmitter got into “sync”. After this, there would be Bill, just a black-and-white shape.
Suddenly the picture locked, the bars vanished, and Baird gasped. There Bill was. Bill in his box, but not just a black-and-white outline, an infant’s drawing: he was there, every feature recognizable, eyebrows thick and curving, head correctly rounded. And he was wearing his grin, but this afternoon it was a grin of triumph. John Logie Baird had achieved a real “television”, a seeing-at-a-distance. But, of course, this was not enough, far from it. Bill was all very well, Bill had seen him through much, but Bill wasn’t human.
Baird tore down the steps to the floor below and burst in on William, the office boy of the firm which rented the floor. William was sorting envelopes and he looked up now in some surprise as the mad Scots inventor, hair flying in the wind, rushed up to him. “Yes?” said William, with dignity. “What do you want?”
“Most important. Most important. I’ve made a discovery and, and you’ve got to come upstairs.” “Look, I’m busy.” “Never mind! come up.”
Shaking his head, William followed the inventor up the stairs and there Baird led him to the chair on which his namesake was seated. A flick of the wrist, and Bill was on the floor, grinning at the ceiling. A moment later William was in his place. “Sit still that’s all. Sit still” Baird tore into the next room.
But this was dreadful. A moment ago there had been a picture. Now there was nothing. Frantically Baird adjusted his tuning, his focus, his voltages: the screen remained blank. Could he have been dreaming? Back he ran; then he bent to pick up the ventriloquist’s dummy, put him in the boy’s place, find out why Bill came through, William didn’t.
Now he saw what was wrong. Bill was wooden, Bill didn’t mind the heat (though he’d been singed more than once). William didn’t like it; the heat, the tremendous light in his eyes; and he’d moved back.
Baird gave him half a crown, got him into focus, promised it wouldn’t take long, rushed to his receiver.
This time the office-boy was there: puzzled, indignant, but there, with every part of his round face clear and in focus, correctly shaded.
He was unimpressed, this young man whose face was the first to be seen on television, and who, a moment later, when they reversed roles, became the second man in history to see television. He went back to his envelopes.
This was what Baird had needed; he was bursting with excite ment. As an engineering apprentice in Scotland who had tried his hand at business and failed, was getting back into technology by becoming an “inventor” while his health recovered from the chain of illnesses which had destroyed his business career, he had needed a breakthrough like this. Now he knew he was on the right track, that television was here. No need now to go back to making and marketing “The Baird Undersock” or guava jam. He began to work even harder. At last, in January, 1926, when his equipment had been much improved, he issued a reckless invitation to the Royal Institute in London, urging it, all of it, to attend a demonstration.
He was shocked at the number which turned out, and they were shocked at the smallness of his premises; but eventually, in doses of six Institute members at a time, the demonstration was performed for all. Bill’s face and a number of human ones, faces of distill guished scientists, each more puzzled than the last, were transmitted from one room to the next. This, the scientists agreed, was incredible Silhouettes had been transmitted a number of times, it was an amusing laboratory demonstration; there had never been any possibility of sending a picture. Yet here it was. The young Scots businessman, for this is what he had always considered himself, the poor boy from the Helensburgh manse who would make his fortune in England, John Logie Baird had demonstrated television.
The next step was to send these visual images over a distance. and now Baird received welcome help from the Chief Engineere of the B.B.C. The picture was sent along telephone wires to a B.B.C. studio and then put on the air by a B.B.C. transmitter. Baird picked it up on a receiver in his own Frith Street laboratory and was overjoyed to find his picture “practically unaltered” by what the B.B.C. had done to it. There were objections, though, to the continued use of a B.B.C. transmitter and Baird now applied for and got the first television transmitting licence ever issued: 2TV. He had very little money, but he was able to move to slightly larger premises near Leicester Square and to install receiving ap-paratus at Green Gables, a house in Harrow, some ten miles distant His picture was received over the distance and now Baird, flushed with success, ambition, formed with a few partners “Television Limited”. Early in 1928 they were able to transmit a crude picture over the Atlantic and a month after that to send one to the liner Berengaria, causing excitement, consternation, among her passengers.
But money is often the problem. As Baird wrote in his memoirs: “If an inventor reads these pages, let him by this be admonished to do what Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, did, and sell for cash. Inventors are no match for financiers where stocks and shares are concerned, and will if they hold on find that the financiers have the cash and they have the paper.”
These are bitter words and certainly John Baird, though his name is a household word, made little money from his invention. Partly through his lack of business ability, partly through bad luck, he found others reaping the benefit of his work. When he died in 1946 he was not the rich man he had hoped to be. It has been said that he “sold himself to Mammon” too soon; if he had not allowed unsuitable people to take shares in his invention at an early stage he would have retained greater control over it, might have convinced John Reith, the first head of the B.B.C., that this was a discovery which needed to be used, and used soon, which was not a commercial stunt. As it was, the B.B.C., after taking many years to work up an interest in television, finally settled on another system which had been developed after Baird’s.
The idea of sending pictures through the air had been in inventors’ minds for years, ever since Marconi had sent the first wireless message; and considerable thought had been devoted to the subject. Paul Nipkow had invented his “Nipkow Disc” which was the foundation of all TV experiment. By punching holes in a certain way round the periphery of a cardboard disc, Nipkow found he could illuminate an object in front of the disc with a light from behind, illuminate it in a series of points of light which “scanned” the object from top to bottom and from side to side. If this illumination of, say, a human head could be picked up by a light-sensitive device, a “photo-electric cell”, the consecutive points of light, each of a varying intensity, depending on the light and shade of each part of the face, could be sent along a wire as separate electric pulses, of different strength. If these pulses could then be converted back into light, through a bulb, and reconstituted, by a similar disc, in the right order, a picture could be built up, and displayed on a small screen. If the two discs revolved fast enough to make use of the eye’s natural persistence of vision, the picture would appear complete: not as a series of dots.
Nipkow’s apparatus was too primitive to transmit anything recognizable, but the principle was sound, and it was this that Baird, with immense concentration, set out to develop. He worked out a plan of scanning so that the dots moved from left to right in horizontal lines (his first experiments were with thirty horizontal lines: the B.B.C, now uses 625) which would fill up a “frame”, and the frame itself would be swept away to make way for another, many times a second, like successive pictures in a cine film.
He experimented with scanning discs, different numbers of holes, different speeds of rotation; and with different photo-electric devices. Others were working along the same lines, but Baird was out in front, and to him rightly belongs credit for having shown the first real television picture. A plaque in Hastings marks the house where, in 1924, having retired there as a young man to recover his health and finances by ”inventing something”, he first transmitted the silhouette of his Maltese Cross. At this stage the American Jenkins, and inventors in France and Austria, were well into the race, had done this sort of thing already. But from this first encouragement Baird leapt ahead, outstripped them all.
From the mechanical method of scanning, with refinements of the Nipkow disc, television progressed using the cathode-ray tube, which had been developed for a different purpose, and Baird, like others, was quick to see its advantages. Instead of moving a beam of light mechanically, by projecting it through holes in a revolving disc, the cathode-ray tube moved a beam of electrons with a pair of magnets and this could be used to scan, indirectly, the object being televised and to light up the front of the tube in synchronization with it. This system is now universal. Baird went on to experiment with projection television, where the picture is thrown on a large screen in a cinema, and with colour television, where he has left a mark on all the systems in use at present.
He calculated that if he changed “frames” three times as often, he could interpose a revolving screen with the three primary colours, and in effect transmit each frame three times, in the three colours. A receiver on the same lines could build up a coloured picture from it, and he produced an apparatus with an astonishing fidelity. He worked, later, on a system where the coloured disc was replaced by three superimposed pictures in the three primary colours, and it is this principle of separate transmission of colour components which is used in all of the methods of colour transmission, many of them still experimental, in the world to-day. The obstacles in the way of universal colour television are the expense of building suitable receivers and the reluctance of countries to saddle themselves with a system which may be incompatible with that in other countries.
If a standardized method of colour transmission were adopted all over the world, mass-production of receivers would bring the price down to an attractive figure; but this is highly unlikely in view of the fact that, even with black-and-white television, there are several ‘line-standards” in use, none of them compatible. In Britain, both 405 and 625 lines systems are in use; there are others in America and on the Continent. In theory, the higher the number of lines, the better the definition of the picture, but there are other factors which make this only a rough guide. Obviously, though, the old Baird picture of the office boy from downstairs, with its thirty horizontal lines, each clearly separate from its neighbour, is a far cry from the modern B.B.C, picture with 625 lines, too close together to be detected.
With high-definition television already here, colour television just around the corner in Britain and a practical proposition in some other countries, the next developments seem to lie in the transmission of pictures over a great distance. It seems strange that though John Logie Baird sent a picture across the Atlantic as far back as 1928, we are unable, without using satellites in space, to do the same now. The answer is that we could, of course, send a thirty-line picture like Baird’s, just as he did, on a long wavelength, which would follow the curvature of the earth. For the higher definition of to-day’s television we have to use very short waves indeed, and these, except in freak conditions, will only travel in straight lines like light, and refuse to sink over the horizon. To get ultra-short-waves from Britain to America we must project them into space and bounce them down again at the right spot, and though this technique is in its infancy there have been many good examples. Perhaps the most important occasion was the funeral of President Kennedy, when the procession as it actually took place in Washington was seen by British viewers.
T.V. has made great strides since John Logie Baird, the semi-invalid from Helensburgh on the Clyde, first showed an office-boy’s face, but had he not done so, it would have been many years before the rest of us saw television.
- John Logie Baird biography at BFI Screenonline
- John Logie Baird’s entry on Helensburgh Heroes web site
- John Logie Baird’s colour television at National Museum of Scotland
- “Television for Millions” Popular Mechanics, September 1935
- “Electron Camera Shoots Television Images” Popular Mechanics, June 1935
- “London Station To Serve Ten Million People” Popular Mechanics, June 1935
- Documents and clippings about Baird Television Ltd (London) in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW