Google doodle drew my attention this morning as I woke up. It is the 90th anniversary of the demonstration of the omnipresent, all-consuming television! Would Jon Logie Baird himself have thought of it then? I wonder! Much the today’s cinematic obsession -or even more!- television has come to occupy the central place in our lives. Probably, in the smartphone era, platform may have changed, not its presence!
Ninety years ago today a moving head on a screen made history. It was the first public demonstration of live television, and the occasion is being marked with a Google Doodle.
The face in question belonged to Daisy Elizabeth Gandy, the business partner of John Logie Baird, the Scottish scientist who is regarded as the inventors of the mechanical television.
The mechanical television, also known as “the televisor” worked a bit like a radio, but had a rotating mechanism attached that could generate a video to accompany the sound. It preceded the modern television, which creates images using electronic scanning.
In 1924 Baird managed to transmit a flickering image across a distance of 10 feet and the following year, he had a breakthrough when he achieved TV pictures with light and shade.
Within two years this flicker was the face of a woman who was in a different room.
Where did this take place?
The historic 1926 public display took place on January 26, in a laboratory in Soho in front of members from the Royal Institution and a journalist from the Times.
The blue plaque commemorating the event can be seen above Bar Italia at number 22 Frith Street in Soho
Although the pictures were small, measuring just 3.5 by 2 inches, the process was revolutionary.
“The image as transmitted was faint and often blurred, but substantiated a claim that through the ‘televisor,’ as Mr Baird has named his apparatus, it is possible to transmit and reproduce instantly the details of movement, and such things as the play of expression on the face,” wrote the reporter from the Times after the demonstration.
As innovative as the demonstration had been, the journalist wasn’t convinced that it would take off.
“It has yet to be seen to what extent further developments will carry Mr Baird’s system towards practical use,” they wrote.
Still, that was better than the reaction of the Daily Express newspaper who, when Baird approached them with the invention in 1925, kicked him out.
Inventor of the television John Logie Baird with Stooky Bill the ventriloquist’s doll (Alamy)
The news editor at the time said: “For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless!”
Who was John Logie Baird?
Baird was a Scottish engineer and inventor born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland. He was the youngest of four sons of a clergyman. As a boy he loved to experiment with electronics – he even rigged up a telephone exchange to connect his bedroom to his friend’s across the street.
From 1914 to 1915, Baird was a student at the University of Glasgow, reading engineering.
Logie Baird with Stooky Bill again (Photo: Rex Features)
Baird cut short his studies when he tried to voluntarily sign up for national service in 1915 but was turned down on health grounds.
Professor Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, said: “We’re proud of the fact that John Logie Baird is an alumnus of the University of Glasgow, and so it is fitting and immensely exciting that these important items, which catalogue the world-changing work he was conducting at the time of his engineering breakthrough, are preserved here in Scotland and at the university where he studied.”
Baird went on to dominate TV innovation for three decades.
After the 1926 display, Baird continued to develop the mechanical TV and in 1927 he transmitted content across a 438-mile long telephone line between London and Glasgow. He went on to set up the Baird Television Development Company, which produced the first transatlantic broadcastand the first live transmission of the Epsom Derby.
A 32-line televisor in action. The singer is the Danish actor Buster Larsen singing in about 1960
Baird returned to the University of Glasgow in 1928, when he gave a lecture, simply titled ‘Television’, to students in the Engineering Society. He explained how the television worked, the difficulties he overcame and the benefits of a wireless system.
He is also said to have expressed a belief that television would soon be of commercial importance.
Baird developed colour TV and brought out the world’s first mass-produced television set in 1929 and from then until 1937 the BBC used Baird’s company for its television broadcasts.
The mechanical TV didn’t last much longer, however – it was outstripped by the electronic television in the 1930s. This didn’t deter Baird, who continued to work in television innovation and eventually gave the first demonstration of a fully electronic colour TV in 1944.
Baird died after suffering a stroke on June 14th 1946 in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex aged 58.
How the mechanical television worked
Preserving Baird’s legacy
The materials, which include a disc featuring what has been described as one of the world’s earliest surviving video recordings, are now stored at the University of Glasgow along with much of the Scottish inventor’s other work.
An asking price of £78,750 was put on the “treasure trove” archive and an export bar was placed on the lot to see if any British buyers would step in.
Malcolm Baird, grandson of John Logie Baird, with a selection of television sets including the first mass production set (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley)
The purchase of the collection was made possible with the financial support of a businessman from Baird’s hometown of Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, who wished to remain anonymous.
The recording and radio log books, used by assistant Benjamin Clapp, contain the world’s first-known use of the acronym TV.
The donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “[The collection] charts such an important period of modern engineering history, so I felt it could not, and should not, leave these shores to move abroad. It needs to be shared for future generations.
John Logie Baird, inventor of the mechanical television (Alamy)
“John Logie Baird was a Helensburgh man and a Scottish pioneer who helped change the world, and with his ties to the University of Glasgow I think it is only right and proper that this important collection should be coming to the university, and hopefully it will help inspire future pioneering engineers.”
The phonovision shellac disc, dating back to September 20 1927, is the world’s oldest-surviving 78rpm video recording and features pictures of Stooky Bill, the ventriloquist’s dummy Baird used when developing his revolutionary mechanical scanning broadcasts.
It was recorded during his transatlantic television trials but was not actually transmitted until February 9 1928, marking one of Baird’s earliest television broadcasts.
The University of Glasgow already owns a vast collection of Baird’s work. He was a student at the university from 1914, studying engineering.
Baird’s other (less successful) inventions
In his twenties Baird tried to create diamonds by heating graphite and shorted out Glasgow’s electricity supply.
He also invented a rust-resistant glass razor which contantly shattered as well as pneumatic shoes, but his prototype contained semi-inflated balloons which burst.
The thermal undersock (the Baird undersock) was his idea. After a number of trials, he found that an extra layer of cotton inside the sock provided warmth for his cold feet.
In 1928, he developed an early video recording device, which he dubbed Phonovision.
According to his son Malcolm, Baird filed a patent in 1926 for a device that formed images from reflected radio waves, a device remarkably similar to radar, and that he was in correspondence with the British government at the time. The radar contribution is in dispute since his wartime record has never been made public by the UK government.
Honouring Baird, Google’s latest doodle features an illustration of the mechanical TV with Baird on the screen.