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.
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…
Toiling away above Frith Street, with financial help from his family and a £200 donation from a private benefactor, John Logie Baird struggled with his invention for many months.
For his experiments, he used an old ventriloquist’s dummy’s head; a character whom he nicknamed ‘Stooky Bill’.
However, try as he might, the Scottish inventor just could not get the image of his plaster prop to appear on the televisor’s wee screen.
As autumn set in, Logie Baird had been at Frith Street for almost a year, yet his invention seemed to be going nowhere.
But then, on Friday 2nd October 1925, the breakthrough moment came:
“Funds were going down, the situation was becoming desperate and we were down to our last £30 when at last, one Friday… everything functioned properly.
The image of Stooky Bill formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement.”
Almost immediately, Logie Baird wanted to test his televisor on a living, breathing human being.
In a sudden burst of energy, he dashed downstairs which, at that time, was home to an office belonging to a Mr Cross. Logie Baird asked if he could quickly borrow the office boy; William Taynton.
William was quickly hauled upstairs and plonked in front of the camera. Wasting no time, John Logie Baird dashed over to the viewing screen… only to find it blank.
What the inventor had failed to realise in his haste was that young William, being rather scared by the bright lights and rapidly whirring discs, had shied away from the camera!
Persuasion was on hand though- in the form of half a crown. Taking this handsome payment in hand, William Taynton diligently sat where required… as the flickering image appeared on the screen, the young lad on the other side of the camera probably didn’t realise that he was going down in history as the first ever real-life T.V star!
Shortly after this euphoric success, there was a knock at Logie Baird’s door… it was a group of Soho prostitutes who, having glimpsed the strange machine through a window, has mistaken it for a telescope- and demanded to know why the Scotsman was spying on them!
Within a few months, John Logie Baird was ready to demonstrate his televisor to the public.
On the 26th January 1926, at Frith Street, he gave the first showing to a group of guests from the Royal Institution. The demo, also beamed to guests at Olympia and at premises on Savoy Hill (behind the Savoy Hotel), included transmitted images of Stooky Bill and also of a real person.
Today, a blue plaque at Frith Street commemorates this event:
Although the showing was a success, one critic from the Royal Institution, clearly not grasping the ground-breaking nature of the event he’d just witnessed, felt compelled to ask; “well… what’s the good of it? What useful purpose will it serve?”
Following the first public demonstration, ‘Baird Television Limited’ was established, its headquarters moving a short distance from Frith Street to 133 Long Acre in Covent Garden.
Further experiments were carried out at the new studio, each more ambitious than the last.
In 1927 John Logie Baird successfully broadcast test images to his native Scotland; the receiving end being a televisor set based at Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel.
The following year, he also succeeded in beaming grainy images (of a man and woman sitting in his studio) across the Atlantic to New York.
Experiments with colour and even 3D were also conducted.
With these advancements, John Logie Baird knew that the time was ready to begin broadcasting to the public.
In those days, the only broadcaster in the UK was the British Broadcasting Corporation; itself in its infancy (and, in those days of course, a radio station).
Logie Baird approached the BBC’s director, John Reith and, after some persuasion, managed to get the corporation to give the new technology a try.
Logie Baird had built a transmitter on the roof of his Long Acre premises, but he soon realised it would be too weak for his ambitions. He therefore needed to borrow one of the BBC’s aerials- known as ‘2LO’ which was located on the roof of Selfridges.
However, 2LO’s primary use was for radio broadcasts, so the BBC only granted Baird Broadcasting access to the transmitter between 11pm and mid-morning next day, when wireless broadcasting was off-air.
Selfridges continued to play an important role in the dawn of television when the first Baird ‘Televisor’ sets went on sale at the department store.
With prices for the new equipment ranging from £20 to £150 (equivalent at the time to the price of a motor-car), only a handful of wealthy people in the London area were able to receive the new-fangled programmes.
In fact, for the very first broadcast, Logie Baird himself estimated that only 30 people were tuned in! One of this select group was the Prime Minister himself; Ramsay McDonald, who watched the historical moment from 10 Downing Street on a Televisor which had been presented as a gift from the Scottish inventor.
The very first programme was broadcast from Covent Garden’s Long Acre on the morning of 30th September 1929.
Due to transmitter limitations, the sound and vision had to be broadcast separately in two minute bursts; so the viewer would first see a silent, flickering image with the crackling sound following shortly afterwards. This split process would continue for the first six months of programming.
The very first televisual broadcast opened with a speech by Sydney Moseley; Logie Baird’s business manager and one of his most supportive friends.
The tiny audience would have seen Sydney, silent but mouthing words… followed two minutes later by the vocal segment:
“Ladies and Gentlemen: you are about to witness the first official test of television in this country from the studio of the Baird Television Development Company and transmitted from 2LO; the London Station of the British Broadcasting Corporation.”
A few more short speeches followed, and then the morning’s entertainment began. The schedule ran as follows:
11.16am. Sydney Howard: televised for two minutes.
11.18am. Sydney Howard: Comedy monologue.
11.20am. Miss Lulu Stanley: televised for two minutes.
11.22am. Miss Lulu Stanley: sang ‘He’s tall, and dark, and handsome’ followed by ‘Grandma’s proverbs.’
11.24am. Miss C King: televised for two minutes
11.26am. Miss C King sang ‘Mighty like a rose.’
Morning television in those days was clearly far more sophisticated than the dross on offer today!
On the 14th July 1930, Baird Television were finally able to broadcast the sound and vision together for the first time. The vehicle used for this demonstration was a short play called ‘The Man With the Flower in His Mouth’, which was written in 1922 by Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello.
Chosen for its simplicity and small cast (considerations which were driven by the tiny televisor screen), the short play is essentially a philosophical conversation in a café between a businessman who has just missed his train and another fellow who is suffering from a cancerous throat.
A preview in the Times described the drama as being “a forbidding study of emotion in the shadow of death.”
The actors, who performed the play live at Long Acre, had to have their faces painted yellow, with navy blue shading around the eyes and nose. This bizarre makeup was intended to enhance their image on the shimmering receiving screens, which glowed a characteristic reddish-orange colour.
In 1967, The Man with the Flower in His Mouth was painstakingly remade in an attempt to emulate what audiences back in 1930 would have seen. The recreation was supervised by the play’s original producer, and also includes the original artwork and gramophone music.
If you’re wondering what the box had to offer in those days, the whole play can be viewed below:
By late 1930, Baird Television’s Covent Garden studio was beaming 30 minutes of programmes in the morning; Monday to Friday and 30 minutes at midnight on Tuesdays and Fridays.
South of the River
In July 1933, Baird Television left Covent Garden and moved to Sydenham in deepest South London.
Here, at the Crystal Palace complex, a new studio was established, with the antenna attached to one of the glass palace’s towers.
John Logie Baird also made his own personal home in the area, on Crescent Wood Road, a short walk from the Crystal Palace studio.
However, the hard luck which had plagued John in his previous business ventures was about to come back and haunt him…
On 30th November 1936, the Crystal Palace burnt down, taking Baird Television studios with it.
Two weeks later, before the ashes had even cooled, the BBC- who were now really starting to get into the T.V thing- announced that they were scrapping Baird’s system in favour of more modern equipment which had been developed by Marconi-EMI.
The BBC moved their T.V wing to Alexandra Palace; the North London twin of the now vanished Crystal Palace.
Television continued to remain an ultra-expensive luxury and, on the 1st September 1939, following a Mickey Mouse cartoon, test card and a preview of up and coming programmes, the service suddenly went off air; closed down by the government in anticipation of the World War which was about to erupt; the fear being that enemy aircraft would use the television signals to hone in on their targets.
The first few years of television had come to an end, and the medium would not be seen again until 1946.
Despite the cruel setbacks, John Logie Baird’s appetite for invention remained as strong as ever.
The ingenious Scotsman went onto experiment with high definition colour, large-screen televisions, video recording devices and even made early ventures into infra-red. It is believed that, during WWII, Logie Baird carried out important work on the new radar network.
John Logie Baird died at the age of 57 on June 14th 1946.
This final clip, from 1937, shows the great innovator with the machine he forged in his Frith Street attic. Today, a working model of his revolutionary device can be still be viewed at the Science Museum in South Kensington.