This month (April 2012) sees the T.V ‘digital switchover’ taking place in London.
The analogue signal, which has served generations of television sets, will be switched off for good and if you don’t have the necessary equipment to watch digital broadcasts, you’ll be left gazing at a blank screen!
Television, by far one of the most prolific inventions of the 20th century, was born right here in London.
Its father was Mr John Logie Baird; a genius Scotsman.
The son of a vicar, John Logie Baird was born in the seaside town of Helensburgh (about 30 miles west of Glasgow) in August 1888.
As a baby, John contracted a near fatal illness; something which left him plagued with ill health for the rest of his life.
Although he suffered from a weak constitution and was branded in school reports as being “timid” and “very slow”, there was nothing wrong with John’s mind which was both curios and brilliant.
As a child, he was fascinated by technology. By the time he 13 years old, John Logie Baird had already converted his parents’ home to electrical lighting (thus making their house the first in Helensburgh to boast the new technology), dabbled in remote-controlled photography and constructed a small telephone exchange which connected a number of neighbours in his street.
At the age of 18, John Logie Baird enrolled at the University of Glasgow where he studied Electrical Engineering.
A few years later, whilst he was contemplating furthering his studies, WWI broke out. Dropping his academic ambitions, John presented himself for military service but, due to the ill health which dogged him, he was deemed unfit.
Struggling in Business
Following the disruption of war, John Logie Baird spent time at the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company before trying his luck as an independent businessman- including a stint as a jam maker in Trinidad!
Although Logie Baird had determination, he didn’t seem to have much luck in his ventures.
The jam making business failed- mainly due to the local insect population which seemed determined to ruin every batch!
Coming back to the UK in the early 1920s, the frail Scotsman, driven by his dwindling finances, told himself that he “had to invent something.”
Settling in Hastings, on England’s south coast (where it was hoped the sea air would improve his health), John’s first idea was a rust-proof razor; the blade being made from glass. This ‘cutting-edge’ concept (pardon the pun!) was quickly shelved when the inventor suffered a vicious cut whilst testing his new prototype!
Next up- and sounding like something straight out of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ – was a pair of ‘pneumatic boots.’ Inspired by the car tyre, Logie Baird envisioned a new type of sole, which would revolutionize walking.
However, these too were doomed to fail. In his autobiography, ‘Television and Me’ the Scotsman described why:
“I bought a pair of very large boots, put inside them two partially inflated balloons, very carefully inserted my feet, laced up the boots, and set off on a short trial run. I walked a hundred yards in a succession of drunken and uncontrollable lurches, followed by a few delighted urchins. Then the demonstration was brought to an end by one of the balloons bursting.”
Following these setbacks, John Logie Baird turned to something which his mind had been toying with for years… the idea of transmitting moving images.
It is believed the notion first came to John as a teenager, when he discovered a German book about the chemical selenium and its photoelectric properties (youngsters in those days clearly had to find novel ways of amusing themselves!)
Whilst in Hastings, the inventor began to dabble with the idea, cobbling together equipment from whatever lay around; glue, sealing wax, knitting needles, bicycle parts, even an old hatbox.
However, this process was rudely interrupted in autumn 1924 when an electrical explosion occurred in the workshop.
Logie Baird’s landlord, worried that he had a mad boffin under his roof, kindly asked the inventor to leave.
The Scotsman obliged, and decided to head for London.
A Lab in Soho
Once in the capital, John Logie Baird found an attic room to rent above 22 Frith Street in Soho.
As mentioned in my earlier post on Little Italy, these premises are now home to the famous 24 hour café, Bar Italia.
Once the new, cramped workshop had been established in London’s West End, John Logie Baird knuckled down on his novel invention.
The contraption which began to develop in the Soho attic was a large, complex device, characterised by fast, spinning discs, numerous lenses, powerful, flickering lights and a photosensitive detector.
Because of the power and size of the machine, accidents and breakages were common, as Logie Baird himself described;
“The apparatus would get out of balance and jump from one side of the laboratory to the other until it was stopped or the disc tore itself to pieces… I had some exciting moments.”
Despite the bulky nature of his creation, the actual screen upon which the pioneering images were displayed was tiny; just a few inches wide (even smaller than the image below)
From Fleet Street to Selfridges
At first, John Logie Baird was only able to transmit static images of silhouettes. Despite this, the inventor was confident that moving imagery would soon be achieved.
As well as being an inventor, Logie Baird was also a businessman, and he knew that his burgeoning creation would benefit greatly from publicity.
With this in mind, the keen Scotsman made his way to the Daily Express office on Fleet Street where he tracked down an assistant editor, and posed the immortal question:
“Are you interested in a machine for television… seeing by wireless?… An apparatus that will let you see the people who are being broadcast by the BBC…”
The assistant editor feigned interest but explained he had a meeting to get to. To compensate, he sent a colleague; “a large brawny individual” as John later recalled, to take note of the story.
This second newsman “listed sympathetically and with great interest” and then, with a handshake, told the inventor that he’d make sure the story got “a first class show” on tomorrow’s edition.
The next day- and perhaps unsurprisingly- the newspaper carried no sign of the story and Logie Baird quickly realised that the staff at the Express had been giving him the brush off.
It wasn’t until years later, when he happened to meet the ‘brawny individual’ again, that John got the full story. Apparently, the first fellow he’d met- the assistant editor- had run into the press room to fetch the brawny chap with the words;
“For God’s sake, Jackson, go down to the reception room and get rid of a lunatic who is there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless! Watch him carefully, he may have a razor hidden”!
One person who thankfully did not view John Logie Baird as a dangerous maniac, was Harry Gordon Selfridge; American owner of the world famous department store on Oxford Street.
Selfridge was always on the lookout for new innovations- especially ones which had the potential draw in large crowds. He was greatly excited by the idea of the ‘televisor’, and insisted that Logie Baird demonstrate the device at his store.
The exhibition ran for three weeks, the promotional posters splashed with the following blurb:
‘Selfridge’s present the first public demonstration of Television in the Electrical Section…
Television is to light what telephony is to sound- it means the INSTANTANEOUS transmission of a picture, so the observer at the ‘receiving’ end can see, to all intents and purposes, what is a cinematographic view of what is happening at the ‘sending’ end.
The demonstrations are taking place here only because we know that our friends will be interested in something that should rank with the greatest inventions of the century.’
The demonstration at Selfridge’s was well received, but John Logie Baird knew he had to take his invention up a notch; to progress from static images to live, moving ones…
Whenever I have the pleasure of meeting passengers from Italy in my taxi, I often joke with them that London is practically an Italian city.
The main reason for this theory of course, is that London was born way back in AD43 as ‘Londinium’; an important settlement founded by an ambitious group of Italians who, in those days, were known as The Romans.
Many of London’s grandest buildings are inspired by Italian architecture. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the second largest in the world… St Peter’s Basilica in the Italian capital, Rome, is the biggest.
On Clerkenwell Road, not too far from Farringdon Station, you’ll find London’s own, St Peter’s Italian Church where, every July, the street ‘Procession of the Madonna Del Carmine’ takes place.
St Peter’s Clerkenwell can even be seen in the opening scene of the very first episode of the popular comedy-drama series, Minder which began in 1979:
London’s museums contain a wide array of Roman artefacts and Italian artworks, and the capital also harbors a substantial number of Italian restaurants and delicatessens.
‘The Shard’, near London Bridge and soon to be the tallest building in Europe, was designed by Renzo Piano… an Italian architect.
Until the 1980s, Queen Square, in Bloomsbury, was home to the Italian Hospital.
London’s modern Italian community began to flourish sometime around the 1880s.
This was a time of mass migration; with political refugees and those fleeing harsh economic conditions being the main rovers. Many Italians sailed to New York during this period, but those who wished to stay a little closer to home chose London, quickly establishing a ‘Little Italy’ around the area of Clerkenwell.
With their main trades being organ-grinding, mosaic and terrazzo craftsmanship, and food-peddling, the new Italian Londoners brought a real dash of colour to the Capital. They even introduced the treat of ice cream to the masses!
Although Italy fought alongside Britain during WWI, the nation was sadly consumed from the 1920s onwards by Benito Mussolini’s own brand of fascism. On 10th May 1940 (several months after the outbreak of WWII), the dictator declared war on Britain.
Following this grim statement, Italian businesses in London were attacked by mobs.
All Italian men living in the UK, between the ages of 16 and 60 were labelled “enemy aliens” and were consequently rounded up and interned on the Isle of Man. Many of those interned had actually been born in the UK. Others had been opponents of Mussolini, and had come to Britain seeking refuge.
A few months later, it was decided that the large number of detained Italians should be sent to camps in Canada and Australia.
In July 1940, as part of this process, a group of 800 Italian men were put on-board a ship called The Andorra Star, which was to transport them to Canada. The ship was also carrying German internees, prisoners of war and a number of Jewish refugees.
Shortly after leaving Liverpool, The Andorra Star was torpedoed off of the Irish coast by a German submarine.
802 people lost their lives in the disaster; 471 one of whom were Italian.
Today, a memorial listing the names of all who died in this tragedy can be found outside St Peter’s Church on Clerkenwell Road.
After the destruction of WWII, the Italian detainees returned to London… only to find that many of their old businesses had been lost or taken over.
Despite this, the Italians began to re-establish themselves around Soho, setting up restaurants and cafes- the most famous of which was… and still is, Bar Italia.
Bar Italia was opened on Soho’s Frith Street in 1949 by Lou and Caterina Polledri, and it has been a family business ever since; a West End landmark which is open 24 hours a day, and still employs an authentic, 1950s Gaggia coffee machine.
When it first opened, the café was a vital cog in the Italian community.
As well as providing the all-important coffee, Bar Italia acted as an important meeting point, where people who had lost family members during the war could find out what had happened to their loved ones. The café was also a popular labour exchange; especially for out-of work waiters.
Another interesting point about the café is that, some twenty years before the Polledri family moved in, the apartment above the premises had been rented out by a Scottish inventor known as John Logie Baird.
Logie Baird used the flat above what is now Bar Italia as a laboratory… in which he invented and first demonstrated a new device known as television! That’s another story altogether of course, and one which I plan to cover in a future post…
Over the years, Bar Italia has achieved cult status.
In 1986, the popular café featured in Absolute Beginners; a film starring David Bowie (who, as a young man, was a regular at the café), about teenage life in 1950s London.
It can also be spotted in the 1992 Sade music video, Smooth Operator and there are rumours that Dave Stewart (who, in the 1980s, formed The Eurythmics with Annie Lennox), plans to write a musical about the café.
The albumclosed with a song called, Bar Italia, all about the Soho institution.
The slow, melancholy, play-out tune was inspired by the fact that Bar Italia never closes, andis therefore a popular destination for clubbers and revellers; that hardy bunch who party through the night and suffer for it by dawn… when that point comes, good, strong coffee is needed and, as Jarvis Cocker sings; “there’s only one place we can go; it’s around the corner in Soho…”