Baird Television Company

John Logie Baird, the first person to transmit television pictures, was born in Helensburgh, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, in 1888. He studied electrical engineering at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, and began a degree at Glasgow University that was suspended by the outbreak of World War I. Ill health, which was a recurrent feature of his life, ruled him out of military service. Instead, he became superintendent engineer of the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company. After the war, Baird did not resume his degree. He set up a successful business, marketing a range of goods including soap and patent socks.

In 1922, Baird suffered a serious physical and nervous breakdown, which made him unable to continue working. He began to experiment with television after moving to Hastings on the English south coast. Baird developed a mechanical scanning system, based on a design patented by the German engineer Paul Nipkow in 1884. At this stage, Baird’s experiments were a hobby with no immediate business prospects, so he was forced to improvise by using cheap or waste materials, such as biscuit (cookie) tins and bicycle lamp lenses. In early 1924, he succeeded in transmitting a still image of a Maltese cross to a receiver in the same room. Convinced of the potential of his invention, he moved to London and was hired to give television demonstrations in Selfridge’s department store. With family financial backing, he set up Television Ltd. and refined his basic technology to improve the quality of the picture. By October 1925, he was able to transmit the live image of a person. He repeated this demonstration for members of the Royal Society in January 1926. Baird then applied for a license to transmit television signals and began trials over a distance of 10 miles. In 1927, he made the first long-distance telecast from London to Glasgow. The next milestone for Baird came in 1928 with the first transatlantic television broadcast from London to a radio station in Hartsdale, New York.

With new financial backing, Baird formed the Baird Television Development Company in 1927 and set up a studio near the Crystal Palace headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1928. He negotiated a contract with the BBC to provide trial television broadcasts, initially twice weekly for half an hour, using its Crystal Palace transmitter. Baird’s receivers, known as “televisors,” cost the equivalent of three month’s average wages. Not surprisingly, fewer than a thousand homes in London invested in this novelty. In 1932, the BBC decided to take control of Baird’s broadcasts.

More ominous for the long-term prospects of the Baird system was the launch of a powerful television consortium. EMI and Marconi, aware of American experiments with electronic television that promised picture delivery superior to Baird’s 32-line picture at 12.5 frames per second, had been conducting their own research and development. In 1934, they formed the Marconi-EMI Television Company. A parliamentary committee, the Selsdon Committee, was set up in 1934 to investigate the existing systems and recommend standards of service. Baird decided to improve the performance of his system by making a licensing agreement with the American inventor, Philo Taylor Farnsworth, for use of his Image Dissector. In 1935, the BBC was given responsibility for television broadcasting and invited the Baird Television Company and Marconi-EMI to carry out trial broadcasts at “high definition” picture quality, defined as at least 240 lines. After four months of trials, in February 1937, the BBC decided in favor of the Marconi-EMI 405-line system.

The Baird system was rendered redundant, but Baird himself received some consolation when his pioneering work was rewarded with the gift of the Gold Medal of the International Faculty of Science, which had never previously been awarded to a Briton. Baird’s company continued to manufacture televisions that met the Marconi-EMI standard, while Baird himself pursued a new challenge—color televison. In 1928, he had demonstrated color television using mechanical scanning, and he now returned to the development of color television. He experimented with a mixture of electronic and mechanical techniques that yielded 600-line color television pictures by late 1940. Earlier in 1940, the Rank Organisation had taken control of the Baird Television Company, which became Rank Cintel Ltd., leaving Baird free to pursue his color television interests. By 1944, he had developed the Telechrome tube, a two-color system that used two electron guns whose beams converged on a translucent screen that was coated on one side with blue-green phosphors and on the other side with red-orange phosphors. He found another financial backer in British music hall star and actor Jack Buchanan and set up John Logie Baird Ltd. Unfortunately, this new venture proved to be short-lived as Baird died in 1946.