John Logie Baird – The Young Experimenter
The youngest of four children to Jessie and Reverend Baird, John was born on August 14, 1888, at the large house called ‘The Lodge’ of ‘wee’ little Helensburgh, a coastal town of Glasgow.
By the turn of the century, this house had witnessed little Logie experimenting on a variety of things which displayed his instincts and aptitudes of an inventor. This young unknown technological innovator (in the seventh grade), was uncomfortable to see his little chums playing with telephones made of tin cans and string. Instead, he made an electric exchange and connected his home to those of his four friends. Unfortunately, angry neighbors soon dismantled the service as they found the street ‘unattractive’ and the hanging wires distracted a cab driver ending in an accident.
The homemade, varnished wooden box that formed the center of this telephone exchange still exists and is in the possession of Baird historian Neil Rimington of Eastbourne, England. Not discouraged by it, Logie – a boy, who always utilized his resources to the fullest used the telephone exchange to set up the lighting system for his family. The lighting house made in his backyard was run by a petrol-powered generator. This activity made ‘The Lodge’ to be the first house in Helensburgh to have electric lighting. Simultaneously, John Baird was also conducting experiments and research in other areas.
The first year of this century saw the unknown inventor standing on the roof of ‘The Lodge’ to experiment the glider constructed with the assistance of his friend Godfrey Harris, but that was an experience that had a strong impact on the rest of Baird’s life. Baird describes this incident in his autobiography Sermons, Soap and Television : "I had no intention of flying, but before I had time to give more than one shriek of alarm, Godfrey gave the machine one terrific push, and I was launched shrieking into the air. I had a few very nauseating seconds while the machine rocked wildly and then broke in half and deposited me with a terrific bump on the lawn."
Some of the considerably serious incidents were soon to follow. Young Baird also experimented with selenium at the age of 15. Selenium was a metal which had been discovered to be sensitive to light and darkness : this was an essential component in the early television system. This was not all. Baird’s interest in photography was another area that he involved himself in. The picture taken from the negatives of his camera had produced satisfactory results. It could be then be said that this little master Logie was jack of all trade.
A healthy social life and an inventive nature seemed to be at variance when his educational graph is scrutinized. The 12-year-old boy John, is described in his school report at Larchfield School as ‘very slow’, ‘timid’ and "…by no means a quick learner". Academic report did not discourage Baird and he got himself enrolled in 1906, on a diploma course in electrical engineering at a technical college in Glasgow. After graduating from this course he entered the Glasgow University to upgrade his diploma to degree. Unfortunately, he never completed his degree as World War I broke out. The intervention of war gave Baird an opportunity to enroll in the army. But he was pronounced unfit for military service and he joined Clyde Valley Electricity Company as a Superintendent. Baird’s electric career ended, after he tried to manufacture artificial diamond by passing a huge current through blocks of carbon; the unhappy result was a breakdown in the local power supply, and he was out of his job.
A century ago, by pioneering television, John Logie Baird influenced the lifestyle of generations to come and made the vast planet a small and a better place to live in.
Necessity is not always the mother of invention. At times, it is the imagination that leads to inventions. Failure at military enlistment on physical grounds, opened new vistas for Logie, who put his thoughts into action and created a unique product that the world today, cannot live without.
Failure is leads to success – this adage was proved right by John who invested his invaluable two decades (1906–1926) before presenting the first mechanical television in 1926.
Baird despite his scarce financial resource, dared against the challenges posed by well-established companies like Marconi and Emirton. He also proved the second adage true – Who Dares – Wins. John, the visionary traveled miles, to leave imprints on products and concepts of the future like Mouse – PC, Fax, Radar Systems etc. that turned out to be a virtual reality.
This is a humble effort to recognize a man, whose contributions and innovations have formed a rock on which stepped many, to make us live comfortably and happily, centuries to come. This native Scot though lonely, driven, tireless and often poor, defined the pioneering spirit of scientific inquiry.
August 14,1888 Born in Helensburgh, Glasgow, Scotland.
1906 Entered a diploma course in electrical engineering at Glasgow.
1914 Graduated from Glasgow University.
1920 Went to Trinidad.
1922 Baird took ill and quit job.
1924 First prototype ‘Television’ was displayed at Selfridges Department Store in London.
1925 The first human – William Taynton appeared on the television screen.
January 26,1926 First fully operational mechanical television was displayed at the Royal Institution. It was hailed as the first true television.
1927 Baird sent ‘Cable’ television transmission 438 miles from London to Glasgow.
1928 Baird extended his system by transmitting a signal between London and New York. He demonstrated the color television, Phonodisc. Primitive Stereoscopic television was developed by Baird.
1929 BBC granted license.
1930 He televised on large screen and was termed ‘Teletalkies’.
1931 Baird married his girlfriend Margaret Albu.
1933 Zworykin unveiled ‘Iconoscope’.
1934 Baird met Fransworth.
1935 Baird invented Noctovision (instrument used to see at nights) by using Infrared rays.
1936 Baird and Marconi – EMI system started operating on trial basis.
1937 BBC dropped Baird.
1938 John and Margaret Baird visited Australia.
1940 A 600 line color projection had been designed.
1941 Stereoscopic color television was developed.
1944 Telechrome – the first color tube entirely with mechanical device was displayed.
June 14, 1946 Baird died in his sleep in Bexhill, Sussex, England.
Baird – An Entrepreneur
Baird’s inventions were not concerned with television or electrical world alone. He also tried out some viable commercial ventures. The first of several such ‘excursions’ consisted of the ‘Baird undersock’ (warm in winter and cool in summer), and unbleached half hose sprinkle which sold well. Despite being profitable, it could not hold Baird on the idea for long. Baird closed down the sock operation and went to Trinidad with his friend to escape the Scottish winter. The island-full of sugar, citrus fruit and mango trees gave him the idea of another new venture. Baird erected three bamboo huts and started manufacturing jams and other related things. But unfortunately, the aroma of the boiling jam was an open invitation to insects to swarm in. Somehow, this tropical venture had a sticky end.
On his return to England, he tried his fortune selling mango chutney, honey and soap. Destiny had better things in store for him. A series of experiments were on the anvil, which were to change his and millions of lives around the world.
Baird was a man who is still acknowledged for his contribution in developing television. He gave his life for television. But, he was one person who even after half a century of his death, is shrouded with many unanswered questions. Was Baird experimenting with radar before World War II ? Was he involved in secret signaling during World War II ? Was he in the military services during World War II ? Why was Baird visited by the Air Ministry and Admiralty personnel ? Why did he deny to move to the USA, when he desperately wanted to, at some point of his life ?
Few investigators have attempted to unravel the mystery. However, a clear picture does not emerge.
It is said that Baird was working on radar technology simultaneously, while inventing the TV. The year 1926 not only marked the breakthrough of his TV but in this year, he had also taken a patent for something different. The specification given for this was that the instrument could be used for scanning of an object with a directional beam of ultra-short radio waves. The reflected waves were picked up by a suitable receiver and the amplified signal was combined to form a picture of the object. This is what we now know as Radar. But then the question still remains – Why was this discovery not publicized by Baird at par with television ?
Dr. Peter Waddell, a mechanical engineer at Glasgow University of Strathclyde, organized an exhibition at the University, in January 1976 on the 50th anniversary of the first public demonstration of television. The success of the exhibition made Dr. Waddell interested in Baird’s work. He wrote his first biography with journalist Tom McArthur that probes for some of the answers. He has found few files of official correspondence from 1920s and 1930s, which describes the visit of Air Ministry and Admiralty personnel to Baird’s Lab. Few other evidences also acknowledge this fact. An updated sequel, Vision Warrior to the book written by the same duo states that the few surviving employees of the Baird company in their late 30s had been skeptical about the extent of Baird’s involvement in radar. This also aroused much controversy. There are evidences that indicate his joining the military.
Though Baird was not accepted during World War I, he was seen dressed in khaki during World War II. A letter written by one James Heath to Henlensburgh Library, states that he saw Baird in 1928 or 1929, dressed as "…a Lieutenant in the Supplementary Reserve of officers…[and he] was conducting experiments in several types of army field communications and new systems."
Heath suggests that these new systems involved "…an invention to send pictures through the atmosphere." It suggests that Baird was involved in secret signaling. After unfolding the various facts journalists started raising questions. At last, in 1984, the British Ministry of Defence issued a terse statement that they were unable to comment because "much of [Baird’s] work is still classified."
There is another reason that gives an idea that Baird might have been involved in secret signaling during World War II. John Logie Baird had visited the USA to have a joint venture with Donald Flamn, but nothing worth a collaboration or venture ‘happened’. At the outbreak of World War II, the same Baird denied the invitation to work in the USA. This refusal might be because of his involvement in secret work. He was also paid £ 1,000 per year from Cable and Wireless Co. of the Crown Corporation, which controlled all official communications in Britain. The works for which the fees were paid is still not known. It is believed that he used the television methods for high speed coded signaling. Research is still on to know as to what was Baird up to, during that period.