How Television Was Invented In London

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 21 months ago
How Television Was Invented In London
Baird television of 1929. Photo: Laurence Scales

There were no monsters on the screen when Baird demonstrated his first television 90 years ago, on 26 January 1926 in Soho. But there was still good reason to hide behind the sofa; the contraption was highly dangerous.

A gorgeous gathering

John Logie Baird, inventor of that first television, is reminiscent of some secretive and sleepless savant of fantasy — creating something beyond imagination in a festering garret. He made something that, with the existing technology, was considered impossible.

Although the plain facts are that his television first appeared in public in London, the authors of Baird biography Vision Warrior found fragmentary early testimonies of mysterious nocturnal experiments in Sussex and in Trinidad (where the conventional account is that he was only making pots of jam).

Baird's creation in 1926 involved a rapidly rotating disc studded with lenses, each one capturing a sliver of the picture. Baird’s first public demonstration of television in Frith Street, Soho (above what is now Bar Italia), turned into an unplanned teleportation experiment when the machine went beyond slicing the light reflected off the image.

On the appointed evening… over 40 members of the [Royal] Institution turned up, all in full evening dress, mostly distinguished scientists but with a sprinkling of ladies. This gorgeous gathering found that they were expected to climb three flights of narrow stone stairs, and then to stand in a narrow draughty passage, while batches of six at a time were brought into the two tiny attic rooms...

‘In one room was a large whirling disc, a most dangerous device, had they but known it, liable to burst at any minute and hop around the room with showers of broken glass. However, all went well except for two small incidents. One of the visitors who was being transmitted had a long white beard, part of which blew into the wheel. Fortunately, he escaped with the loss of a certain amount of hair.

Sadly, Baird dictated these recollections in ill health, shortly before his death, and he forgot to tell us the other incident. After years of poverty which proved hard on his health, the inventor lived the high life on the strength of television for a while but that did not agree with his sickly constitution either.

Today, most people accept that Baird was the inventor of television. But he is also often derided as the inventor of an impractical mechanical system that was a technological dead-end. (By some accounts though, his picture was better than the early electronic version.) Both views are flawed but it is totally unfair to Baird to perceive him clinging to obsolete ideas. After all, he went on to develop electronic technology well ahead of his time.

Baird in 1925 with his televisor equipment and dummies James and Stooky Bill

Reinventing the TV

The story of how television was invented usually ends with the Baird television. But television had to be completely reinvented to make the system that most of us grew up with — and that happened in London too.

Unsung heroes developed television as we know it — and they also did it in London. Electronic television in the modern sense was invented in concept by Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton between 1911 and 1924. He was, like Baird, a Scot. A successful consulting electrical engineer, he lived in a corner of Chester Square. It was observed in 1873 that an electric current passed through selenium was affected by light. The discovery, coupled with the spread of the telegraph, soon raised in the mind of Swinton (and many others) the possibility of sending moving images electrically.

Swinton wrote, before Baird had gone public with his mechanical television, that it would have to process a million pieces of information every second. Both the camera and the picture display had to be electronic (in the form of a ‘cathode ray tube’) for a reasonably natural changing scene to be captured and displayed. He also recognised that this involved a major research and development project far beyond the means of any individual.

Baird demonstrated both colour and 3D television using cathode ray tube technology decades before they came into regular use.

That team eventually came together at Marconi EMI in Hayes, Middlesex under Russian émigré Sir Isaac Shoenberg. He managed to keep the flow of investment turned on despite tough times, and led some outstanding engineers such as Alan Blumlein whose lasting reputation as an inventor was not helped (a) by the fact that he never starved in a garret but lived in a semi-detached house in Ealing, and (b) by the secrecy surrounding his death on a radar testing flight in the second world war.

After broadcasting from Alexandra Palace both the Baird and EMI systems alternately over six months, the BBC dropped Baird in 1937. (By this time his ‘live’ television system consisted of filming the action, developing the film and scanning the film for transmission, all in seconds). But Baird’s story did not end in defeat. It allowed him to direct his energy at other projects. He acquired a laboratory at Crystal Palace and demonstrated both colour and 3D television using cathode ray tube technology decades before they came into regular use.

But Baird’s story did not end in defeat. It allowed him to direct his energy at other projects. He acquired a laboratory at Crystal Palace and demonstrated both colour and 3D television using cathode ray tube technology decades before they came into regular use.

The second world war intervened and all television broadcasts were suspended. In 1946 the world was finally ready to watch Muffin the Mule, but Baird was no longer a player in the field of domestic appliances. Precisely what the ingenious Mr Baird developed during the war still remains a bit of a mystery.

Precisely what the ingenious Mr Baird developed during the war still remains a bit of a mystery.

Last Updated 21 January 2016