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John Logie Baird


John Logie BairdJohn Logie Baird is remembered as the inventor of mechanical television, radar and fiber optics. Successfully tested in a laboratory in late 1925 and unveiled with much fanfare in London in early 1926, mechanical television technology was quickly usurped by electronic television, the basis of modern video technology. Nonetheless, Baird's achievements, including making the first trans-Atlantic television transmission, were singular and critical scientific accomplishments. Lonely, driven, tireless and often poor, the native Scot defined the pioneering spirit of scientific inquiry.

An article was posted on our webboard which we replicate here as it contains some interesting information.

Flying false flags
by Peter Barr

The United States turned up more than two years late in the First and Second World Wars. And if it commemorates the 75th anniversary of the invention of television on 7 September this year, it will be late again - by more than 19 months.

Two weeks ago, the US Congress passed a resolution to acknowledge the work of 19th-century Italian-American inventor Antonio Meucci in the invention of the telephone, rubbishing Alexander Graham Bell in the process.

But this is not the first time in recent months that a Scots-born inventor has come under US attack. On 9 May this year, Governor Mark Schweiker of Pennsylvania declared 7 September "Philo Taylor Farnsworth Day" throughout the state, saying: "With the unveiling of his most well-known invention, the television, in Philadelphia, Philo Taylor Farnsworth followed in the footsteps of Pennsylvania's beloved son, Benjamin Franklin, successfully changing the course of modern technology and the lives of countless millions."

A similar proposal for 7 September has also been put on the table by Paul Schatzkin, author of The Farnsworth Chronicles. "Our goal is simple," writes Schatzkin. "We want everybody who turns on a television set to know that date is the anniversary of the day the medium arrived on this planet - and to know the name of the man who delivered it."

But the truth is that Philo T Farnsworth was not the first person to demonstrate television in the US, never mind the first on the planet. The world’s first public demonstration of "real" television took place in London on 26 January, 1926 before an audience of 40 members of the Royal Institution, Britain’s leading organisation for promoting scientific research.

The man behind the demonstration was a 37-year-old Scotsman called John Logie Baird. And what he showed on screen, 19 months before Farnsworth, was far superior to Farnsworth’s "blob of light", as it was famously described by Albert Abramson in The History of Television.

At the 1926 demonstration, Baird transmitted images of the observers from one room to another. The screen displayed half tones - black and white, and shades of grey - using a method he had patented three years before.

In private, Baird had gone even further, but kept many of his inventions a secret in case others stole his ideas. Similarly, when he registered his patents, he was always careful not to give too much away, and sometimes even submitted false details to mislead his rivals.

Baird’s true story has been obscured for a long time. But later this year, when the National Museum of Scotland publishes a new biography of Baird by historian Antony Kamm (in collaboration with the inventor’s son Malcolm), the picture will be clearer.

Contrary to misconception, Baird did not stop at 30-line, mechanical black-and-white TV. Before he died in 1946, he had developed a television system which is more advanced than any system in use today: all-electronic, 1,800-line, three-dimensional colour TV.

During his career, he also patented the world’s first mechanical recording and playback system, the Phonovisor - plus the forerunner of radar, the Noctovisor, and what is acknowledged as the world’s first patent for fibre-optics.

Baird was so far ahead of his time that, even from beyond the grave, his inventions still provide the inspiration for a new glasses-free, stereoscopic/3D imaging system, currently being developed in Glasgow by Dr Peter Waddell and a team from the University of Strathclyde, in partnership with US-based Ethereal Technologies.

According to Waddell, Baird is the only pioneer who deserves to be called the "inventor" of TV. "Baird was the great innovator and pace-setter in television," says Waddell. "He was the first to demonstrate it, and the leader when he died.

"Other figures like Farnsworth made great contributions, but compared to Baird, they all had tunnel vision."

It’s not just Scots like Waddell who acknowledge Baird’s achievements - the Americans have also widely recognised Baird as the driving force behind television. When Baird went to New York in 1930, he was welcomed by the mayor with a motor-cycle escort and a pipe band, and hailed as "the inventor of television". In 1931, the New York Times listed the 100 "most outstanding inventions of the last 80 years", and the last entry states: "1926: JL Baird sends recognisable television image over a wire."

Baird also upstaged the Americans on several occasions. On 7 April, 1927, Bell Laboratories demonstrated television in America for the first time, using 1,000 men to send signals 200 miles between Washington and New York. Six weeks later, Baird responded by broadcasting signals from London to Glasgow (more than 400 miles apart), with seven assistants and a telephone line. On 9 February, 1928 he made the first broadcast across the Atlantic.

The image of Baird as a failure was recently repeated in the New Yorker magazine in an article by Malcolm Gladwell, published on 27 May this year. According to Gladwell, Baird died "in misery", having "tried and failed to produce mechanical television".

Baird did not die in misery. After a lifetime spent battling with illness, as well as big business, he died on the brink of his greatest achievements, having persuaded the British authorities to adopt his proposals for post-war TV, based on his masterpiece the Telechrome, the blueprint of modern colour TV, patented in 1944.

Baird’s early systems may have been mechanical, but this was for practical reasons. In the 1930s, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) were unproven, hard to make and highly dangerous. But even though he was a son of the manse, Baird didn’t kneel down and pray for improvements - he set about making them happen.

Baird was already using CRTs in 1933, despite all their drawbacks, but his focus on mechanical systems was a stroke of true genius. Not only did Baird get immediate results, but he built the foundation of TV for decades to come by perfecting the Flying Spot Scanner which is still used today to transfer images from film to TV.

"Without Baird’s perfection of the Flying Spot method, we would have no Cheers or Friends or Life On Earth on our TV screens," says Edinburgh-based Jan Leman, the director of JLB, a new feature-length documentary film about Baird, JLB, currently in co-production with the BBC. "The footage shot for JLB in 2002 still reaches the screen via the Flying Spot Telecine and delivers unsurpassed image quality."

Far from being a failure, Baird’s mechanical systems made TV work - not just in the past but in their modern incarnations.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the camera used to transmit the live pictures was based on Baird’s Field Sequential Colour System, because this was the best and most reliable available.

In his article, Gladwell also regurgitated the myth that the "inventor" of TV was Philo T Farnsworth - a mantra echoed in the US Hall of Heroes in Washington where a statue of Farnsworth is adorned with the legend, "The father of television". The US government has even issued stamps to commemorate Farnsworth.

Baird actually worked very closely with Farnsworth at one time. From 1934-35, he improved the performance of Farnsworth’s Image Dissector camera from 440 to 700 lines. He also used Farnsworth’s ideas to build bigger and better TV tubes.

Throughout the 1930s, most Ameri-can observers admitted that Britain was winning the race for TV. In June 1939, Wireless World reported that Baird Television technical experts had arrived in New York to "expedite the television invasion of the US".

The head of RCA, David Sarnoff saw what was coming, and mobilised US forces. When he launched America’s first public broadcasts in June 1939, Sarnoff said: "This miracle of engineering skill which one day will bring the world to the home also brings a new American industry to serve man’s material welfare ... [television] will become an important factor in American economic life."

Sarnoff was right about TV’s potential, but his words should be put in perspective. Baird and the BBC had broadcast the first TV programmes in Britain some ten years before.

America may have been slow to the draw, but it came out with every gun blazing, with a little help from its own regulatory bodies - and the Third Reich.

Broadcasting in Britain stopped at the outbreak of the Second World War, for fear that German bombers would be able to pinpoint targets in London by homing in on television signals. But even though the screens went blank in public, Baird’s research gathered momentum - in secret, with cabinet backing.

In 1941, the British government had the foresight to set up the Hankey Committee to map out the future of British TV. It also aimed to stop the US dominating television after the war, as had happened after 1918 when Hollywood and US cinematographic technology conquered the world.

Baird was the only individual private witness to the Hankey Committee, which endorsed his proposal for a 1,000-line, three-dimensional colour system as the new post-war standard for British TV. But when Baird died two months after the Hankey Report was published, these plans never got off the ground, and the US moved in for the kill.

In 1946, immediately after Baird died, the Telechrome mysteriously disappeared. Today, only a fragment survives of his prototype version, but immediately after the war a flurry of American companies, including RCA, registered patents that bore an uncanny resemblance to Baird’s great device.

It wasn’t the first time America had caused trouble for Baird. In 1931, Baird and Donald Flamm, the founder of Voice of America, applied for a licence to broadcast TV programmes in America. But the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) refused the application. As Donald Flamm revealed in a private interview in 1996 for the film JLB, the FCC said "no" because they didn’t want a non-American involved.

The Americans’ behaviour would not have appeared strange to Baird. In his autobiography, Sermons, Soap & Television, he wrote about "the jealous malice which would … have brushed aside and distorted the facts by every mean trick of omission, innuendo and misrepresentation." This malice still seems to exist in 2002 but, as Baird also wrote: "The detractors did not find me easy to crush." Dr Douglas Brown of the Strathclyde Technology Forum has said of Baird’s last great idea, three-dimensional TV: "Why don’t we have such systems in our living rooms today?"

It may not be easy to reach agreement about who invented television. Financial greed, government secrets and personal jealousies continue to muddy the waters. But some facts are clear.

Farnsworth was not the inventor of TV, and only ever focused on live TV systems. He was one of several pioneers. Bell Laboratories has greater claim than Farnsworth to be the American "first". And virtually nothing of Farnsworth’s technology is delivered to our living rooms today.

There is, however, much evidence that Baird set the pace. Every time you switch on your computer, your video recorder or your TV, the technological "family tree" still goes back via thousands of branches to Baird.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Baird was a true internationalist, working on technology which was to revolutionise American life. But he was rejected by the "land of the free" during his lifetime. This year the US could correct a 75-year-old misconception by finally acknowledging John Logie Baird’s place in history.

Perhaps it is also time Scotland tuned in to the truth. In this country, the only memorial to Baird is a bronze statue in his home town, Helensburgh. William Wallace may have forged a nation, but Baird was the only Scot who changed the world.


In 1926 John Logie Baird became the first man in history to give a successful public demonstration of television. During WWII, with the help of one assistant, a part-time glassblower and a refugee from Germany, he built his masterpiece and swansong - the Telechrome. It was the foundation of all modern electronic colour television.

In a lifetime blighted with ill health, JLB - as he was known - produced 178 patents crucial to the technology that would define the 20th century. But since his early death in 1946, his achievements have been allowed to slip from view, obscured by ignorance about what he pioneered.

Few are aware that much of his greatest work was done in complete seclusion, in his personal laboratory and entirely at his own expense.

Filmed in the UK, USA and Germany between 1994 and 2002 and featuring previously unseen archive and historic eyewitness testimony led by his son Malcolm, this documentary reveals the unknown story of the central figure behind the most powerful technology on earth.

Transmitted: 2002

This film footage is from the Archive Collection held and administered by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.


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