John Logie Baird and the Crystal Palace

Scotland has given the world many inventors and engineers, and the list is too long to reproduce here. It suffices to say that ships’ engineers are nearly always depicted as Scots, so there must be something in Scotland that encourages original thought and experimentation.

Such an inventor was John Logie Baird, who was born at Helensburgh in August 1888, the son of a Presyterian Minister who had hoped, in vain, that John would also enter the church as his vocation. But he had no interest in that direction, but while still at school rigged up telephone connections to some of his local school friends through overhead wires, thus bringing upon himself the wrath of the newly-created local telephone company. Apparently a hansom cabdriver was nearly decapitated by a hanging wire from one of John’s connections with a schoolmate. He was fascinated by electricity and what it could do, and studied it as part of his university course.

He was however also interested in pursuing new ideas, and invented a non-rusting glass razor (a signal failure, since it shattered on use) and a shoe with a pneumatic sole for comfortable walking. Unfortunately the pneumatic sole also failed because of punctures, causing those who tried them to be thought to have taken too much of Scotland’s famous product. He also tried to create diamonds, but shorted-out the local electricity supply with his experiments. He did however create a special sock with a treated lining for those who, like him, suffered from cold feet, and this was commercially successful. His inventive mind was however not content and he moved south to pursue something that had nagged him for some years – what we now know as television, although other names were used from time to time. Thanks to Marconi he knew that sound and voices could be sent long distances by radio and by wire, and believed that somehow moving images could be added in some way. By way of an interlude Baird continued with commercial enterprises: he went to the West Indies to set up an import business there, and then when that did not succeed he began a jam-making business. This had promise, but when Baird returned to England it fell apart in his absence. He then started a honey import business, and also sold soap (Baird’s Soap). These were fairly successful but he could not resist going back to his first love – television.

At that time the cathode-ray tube (now reaching the end of its life in the world of television receivers) was in its infancy, and Baird concentrated on using variations in light converted to radio signals and converted back to light on receipt. At around the same time a young man in America – Philo T Farnsworth – asked himself the same nagging question, but used a very small cathode-ray apparatus and designed a special kind of camera in his research. Baird had to have a very high voltage (2000) in his experiments, and nearly blew up his attic lodging in London (and himself) in achieving it. His apparatus was very rudimentary, and he used all kinds of bits and pieces to create it – he scoured secondhand shops for anything of use, and used darning-needles, a coffin lid as a base, a hatbox, a tea chest, and lots of string, sealing-wax and glue. He rescued obsolete electric motors to turn cardboard discs and fitted the discs with lenses from bicycle lamps. He managed to mount a demonstration to show selected people from the world of science that the principle of transmitting and receiving an image could be achieved, and even had one of them looking under the coffin-lid mounting base to find wires. The quality of the picture was of course crude by any standard, but the principle was established, even if those who saw it thought it had no future.

The main question was of course whether the invention was capable of being developed for any commercial use, and, after a period at Hastings to improve his health, and with help from his family and one or two supporters, Baird set up workshops at Long Acre in London. As early as 1929 Baird had persuaded the Postmaster General and the BBC (the latter with reluctance) to allow test transmissions using his 30-line system from the Savoy Hill studios. These included a play by Pirandello in 1930. The BBC withdrew from the production side of the transmissions later in 1930. He accepted a challenge to televise the Derby and did so in 1931 and 1932 (one shown on a giant screen in a cinema followed by cheers and congratulations from all who watched it - presumably not just from winners!). He moved into a studio at Broadcasting House in August 1932 after Reith yielded to pressure from his Chief Engineer, and in 1933 moved to workshops and studios at Crystal Palace. The venue for a public television broadcasting service was chosen as Alexandra Palace rather than Crystal Palace, and by then a rival system devised by EMI had attracted the interest of the BBC. In September 1933 Baird demonstrated 120-line television and then, in 1934, 180-line. At this point Baird’s company had contacted Philo T Farnsworth to obtain a licence to use his kind of cathode-ray tube and his electronic camera.

In 1934 the GPO set up the Selsdon Committee to make recommendations about the future of television and the systems available. It recommended that a public television service should use both the EMI 405-line system and Baird’s latest 240-line one. In 1935 Baird’s by then out-moded 30-line system was closed down and it was decided in 1936 to transmit, on alternate days, both the Baird system and the EMI system. Those who received both systems had of course to have equipment capable of accepting both kinds of signals. After the results were considered, the BBC chose the EMI system, but Baird, although disappointed, continued his developments. He had moved to 3 Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham to be near his extensive workshops under the Main Transept of the Crystal Palace, which used the South Tower for experimental transmissions. He had by now formed a company, but was very much a ‘loner’ in his research, and also did not make detailed notes of what he was doing, and why. He was far-sighted in his research in that he developed a colour television and a stereoscopic system long before anyone else. His limited-range transmissions from Crystal Palace were, in effect, the first independent television system.

In the event, although there was a lot to be said for Baird’s system, the BBC chose EMI. Some said that this was an expression of Reith’s dislike for Baird (which went back to their schooldays), but with hindsight it can be seen that the choice was probably the right one. In a further, major, blow to Baird in 1936, his workshops were burnt to cinders by the fire that engulfed the Crystal Palace, and he had to abandon a lot of his work. His studio and the South Tower were however spared, and he carried on with trial transmissions from there. Baird carried out further experiments with colour and large-screen television, and also increased the definition of his system to 600, and then as high as 1000 lines (almost as high as the current high-definition specifications!).

The war then intervened and he moved to Hastings. The South Tower was demolished, together with the North Tower, but after the war a new television mast was erected on the South Tower site. What Baird did during the war is still not clear, although he certainly had a role to play with radar and aircraft navigational aids.

There has long been argument whether Baird or Philo T Farnsworth (or even EMI) should be given the accolade of ‘Inventor of Television’. Like Baird, Farnsworth certainly demonstrated the principles involved but EMI developed another and later system using only part of Farnsworth’s work. Earlier Baird had demonstrated, albeit with very crude home-made equipment, that television was possible. There should be no dispute – the garland belongs to Baird.

Baird died at Bexhill in 1946. His health had never been good, and on several occasions during his working life he had had to stop his research to convalesce. His house at Bexhill has now been replaced by Baird Court (a block of flats) but there is a blue plaque on the wall of his London lodgings.

Ephraim Pemberton

With grateful acknowledgement to Richard G Elen for his comments on this article.

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