John Logie Baird - A Life

Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird. Published 2002 by the National Museums of Scotland Publishing Limited.

This substantial work draws on and quotes from many sources, some of them hitherto unpublished. Baird is not an easy character to describe, but from his early years he was obviously fascinated by the discovery of the telephone and the ability to transmit sound over a landline and, of course, by radio when Marconi achieved fame with his transatlantic achievement. Although plagued throughout his life with ill-health he managed to engage in a number of business ventures, some of which were successful and others were not. He finally found that his lifelong interest was devising schemes to transmit moving pictures by wire or by radio, and although there will always be argument about who actually invented what we now know as television there is no doubt that he was a visionary in this area. As early as 1926, using scrap materials, he managed to transmit an image, and for the rest of his life never lost his interest in developing television. The early transmission of television programmes had to get the support of the British Broadcasting Corporation, John Reith in particular, and for a long time his achievements were treated as no more than an interesting novelty with no particular future. Finally however, using Alexandra Palace for transmissions, the BBC mounted a series of trials of Baird’s system (described then as mechanical) and a rival system put forward by EMI. In the event Baird lost the battle, but it was mainly because his rival had very substantial financial backing, and Baird had been unsuccessful in getting American commercial support. But Baird went on, using Crystal Palace as his workshop and studio (until it burnt down) and the South Tower for his experimental transmissions. He had many ‘firsts’ to his name – transatlantic television, the use of colour, and stereoscopic television (with and without special glasses). He foresaw the introduction of commercial competition for the monopoly of the BBC, and the use of colour. He is also credited with the concept of video recording, and what is now in widespread use as facsimile transmissions (the ‘Fax’). Some also credit him with an early demonstration of transmissions from aircraft based on a patent of 1926, but the book does not suggest that he was directly involved in the development of navigational radar during WWII (H2S). During the war he was engaged by Cable and Wireless as a consultant with a modest financial retainer, but his discoveries were not regarded by the then Ministry of Supply as relevant to the war effort.

This account of Baird’s life is well-researched and comprehensive – only in recent years, with colour television now commonplace, has his inventive genius been recognised. His work brought him little financial reward, whereas others have derived great benefit from it. Alongside Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and others Baird has left an enduring legacy, even to the extent that it enabled the world to see television footage of the Moon Landing!! One can only speculate what he might have achieved if his health had been good and he had lived longer.

Eric Kings

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