John 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.