This wonderful image depicts John Logie Baird– the genius Scotsman who invented television- demonstrating an early prototype of his groundbreaking device in the electrical section of Selfridges department store, Oxford Street in 1925.
Cobbled together from a soapbox, cardboard discs and various bicycle bits, this primitive ‘televisor‘ was only capable of beaming eerie, static images onto a tiny receiving screen. Nevertheless, it was a success and marked the world’s first public demonstration of the fledgling technology.
Just a few years later, Selfridges would go on to sell the very first television sets- which cost as much a brand new motor car at the time. You can read more about John Logie Baird’s London here.
Spread across an impressive slope in Sydenham, South London, Crystal Palace Park is one of the capital’s most intriguing green spaces.
The locale has always been a noted beauty spot.
Before Crystal Palace Park was established, the area formed the grounds of ‘Penge Place’ (‘Penge’ deriving from the Celtic word, ‘Penceat’ meaning ‘on the edge of a wood’); a large, Tudor-style manor house built at the beginning of the 19th century by Edward Blore.
In its present form, the park owes its existence to an event which took place in 1851- The Great Exhibition; a five-month long celebration of all the world had to offer in terms of culture and technology.
Essentially the world’s first expo, The Great Exhibition was hosted north of the Thames in Hyde Park, housed within a vast, purpose-built structure forged from metal and glass….a building which the satirical magazine, Punch dubbed the “Crystal Palace”.
Between May and October 1851 millions from across both the UK and the world flocked to wonder at the Victorian marvel, firmly planting the building in the public psyche.
By the time the exhibition closed its doors, much of the British public had grown exceptionally fond of their ‘People’s Palace’ and there was great concern that the temporary structure was about to be lost forever.
Luckily, Salvation was at hand thanks to two solicitors- Messrs Leech and Farquhar who suggested that the palace be dismantled and resurrected elsewhere. This plan was quickly adopted and, within less than a year, a site in Sydenham had been earmarked as the new home; a location which the palace’s original architect, Sir Joseph Paxton, described as “the most beautiful spot in the world” for his celebrated creation.
In just two years the huge structure was carefully taken apart and transported to the south London green spot where it was skilfully reassembled and expanded.
The second incarnation of the Crystal Palace incorporated galleries representing the histories and cultures of numerous nations. For these installations, specialist craftsmen from abroad were drafted in to create the representations of their homelands. As one guide-book from the time noted, many firm friendships between these fellows and their British counterparts were made in the “palace of peace.”
Despite the enthusiasm, the project was not without tragedy.
In August 1853 during the building’s reconstruction, a section of scaffolding collapsed, plunging ten workmen 170ft to their deaths.
Following this disaster, 2,000 fellow workers attended a meeting at which it was declared “the working-class are the best protectors of their own interests” and that if the 2,000 colleagues “would each abridge themselves of a pint of ale a week, they might raise a fund of £500 a year for the relief of widows and orphans…”
The ten men were buried together nearby at St Bartholomew’s church, Sydenham (where their shared grave can still be seen), the funeral attended by 1,000 mourners.
A new park for London
In June 1854 and with Queen Victoria in attendance, the relocated Crystal Palace once again opened its doors to an eager public.
The new location was well connected with two purpose built railway stations; Crystal Palace Low Level on the park’s southern side (still open today) and Crystal Palace High Level.
Originally located on the western edge of the park, the High Level station closed in 1954 and has long since vanished, the site now covered by modern housing.
If you look carefully however, a few remnants of the old station can still be glimpsed. Alongside the new homes, just below Crystal Palace Parade, you’ll find a long retaining wall, which once run parallel to the station.
If you peer over the opposite side of Crystal Palace Parade, you’ll spot the dilapidated remains of a once ornate subway which provided a direct walkway between the station and the palace itself.
For those who wished to travel to the attraction by road, accommodation for three hundred horses-a sort of equine garage- was provided at the ‘Paxton Stables’, located behind the nearby Woodman Inn on Westow Hill, where your steed could rest for the price of one shilling and sixpence; “including a feed of corn and all other expenses.”
Today, ‘Joanna’s’ restaurant stands on the site of the old pub, although the cobbled road which led into to the horse facility can still be seen.
Park of delights
Inside the rebooted Crystal Palace there was a stunning amount for visitors to indulge in, with galleries showcasing art and culture from across the ages; Greek, Egyptian, Roman (including a court dedicated to the doomed town of Pompeii), Italian renaissance, Byzantine, Medieval and much more.
There were also galleries for musical instruments, fabrics, sculpture and various other modern technologies.
The surrounding gardens provided even more delights, with impressive arrays of flora, a park showcasing large dinosaur models (more of which in part two) and a system of powerful fountains which, when first inaugurated, were capable of firing jets of water 200ft into the air.
This impressive aquatic display was powered by two mighty water towers; each sanding 282 ft. high- 107 ft. taller than Nelson’s Column and designed by legendary engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
To keep the fountains operating at such levels, the towers were required to deal with a colossal 120,000 gallons of water per minute. However, it soon became apparent that the structures were unable to cope with such force and, fearing that the towers may rupture, the park’s owners had little choice but to wind the fountains down.
More successful of the outdoor features was the Pneumatic Railway; a short, experimental line linking one park gate to another.
The system consisted of an airtight pipe, sunk halfway into the ground, through which a single carriage was puffed from one end to the other- rather like a giant pea shooter.
Many visitors paid a few pence to ride this novelty but despite its popularity the railway remained open to the public for just one year. Its quick disappearance has since led to many an urban legend suggesting that the Victorian railcar lies buried somewhere deep beneath the park…
For the first thirty years at its new location, the Crystal Palace thrived, attracting an average of two million visitors per year.
Countless exhibitions were held; dog and cat shows, livestock shows, photography exhibitions, acrobatic displays, circuses, musical concerts and so on.
Firework extravaganzas were also popular and heads of state from across the globe came to enjoy the delights of the glistening landmark.
In 1911, the complex staged its biggest event ever; The Festival of Empire in which “representations of possessions beyond the seas”- such as Indian tea plantations, Australian vineyards and South African gold mines- sprang up around the park like a miniature, global village.
To help visitors access these dioramas, organizers laid down ‘The Red Route’; a mile and a half long electric railway with stations for each country.
Into the 20th century
Despite such extravagance, the Crystal Palace itself was struggling financially.
Since the turn of the century, the 1850s building- which it must be remembered had originally been designed to stand for a matter of months- was growing increasingly shabby.
Over the past decades, it had suffered fire and storm damage. Random panes of glass would often become loose and drop out and the framework required constant painting. The building’s vast size was proving too costly to maintain and, shortly after the Festival of Empire, the Crystal Palace was declared bankrupt.
War and a new lease of life
Eventually bailed out by the Earl of Plymouth, the huge venue stumbled back to its feet, making a few pounds on the side with newly installed banks of slot machines.
Another innovation was created by a chap called Edmund Dangerfield (editor of The Motor magazine) who, in one of the palace’s wings, set up the world’s very first museum dedicated to the motor-car.
Following the outbreak of WWI, the Crystal Palace and its surrounding park were closed to the public and commandeered by the military; the facilities being used to train 125,000 servicemen.
Due to the war emergency, the cars from Dangerfield’s motor museum were given little consideration; with those that could not be returned to their original donors being hastily dumped on waste ground near Charing Cross.
At the conclusion of the Great War the Crystal Palace found another role as a huge demob centre.
Once its duties to King and country were over, the attraction experienced a brief renaissance thanks to James Buckland; the newly installed manager who loved the Victorian icon so much that he’d named his daughter ‘Chrystal’.
During this period, the Crystal Palace provided a home for the very first incarnation of the Imperial War Museum; the weapons on display illustrating the horror of trench warfare which was still very fresh in people’s minds.
The Imperial War Museum remained at the Palace until 1924 before moving onto South Kensington and then Lambeth, where it has remained since 1936.
In the early 1930s, the Crystal Palace played an important role in the early history of television when the Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird decided to move his studio onto the premises, using Brunel’s two old water towers as masts for his antennas. To read more about Logie Baird’s London, please click here.
Farewell old friend
On the night of November 30th 1936, the legendary Crystal Palace came to a rapid and tragic end.
Just after 7pm, James Buckland- who lived nearby so he could keep a close eye on his cherished responsibility- was returning from an evening walk when he noticed a glow coming from the palace.
Rushing to the scene, he discovered staff attempting to extinguish a fire which, although small initially, was spreading faster than they could handle.
The flames quickly took hold, promptly engulfing the building in a mighty inferno. So intense was the blaze that its red haze could be seen as far away as Brighton and Margate, the disaster earning the awful title of Britain’s largest peace-time blaze.
Despite the exhaustive efforts of 430 firemen, 88 fire engines and 749 police officers the Crystal Palace was utterly destroyed; the London landmark turned into a smouldering ruin of twisted metal within a matter of hours.
A news-reel from the period covering the heartbreaking event can be viewed below.
The only features to survive the inferno were Brunel’s two water towers which remained in situ until the outbreak of WWII- when they were deliberately destroyed in what is believed to have been an attempt to thwart enemy bombers using the landmarks as navigational aids.
Amongst the ruins…
Today, the site of the old Crystal Palace on the park’s western edge is an eerie, melancholy place characterized by windswept staircases and lonely statues; many of which have been callously vandalized.
In 1953, American poet, James Broughton used the atmospheric ruins as the backdrop to his short, avant-garde film, The Pleasure Garden which featured Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier and sought to inject a little cheer into post-war Britain…
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…