the inventor of television?
There can be few people of my age group (i.e. getting on a bit) who would not
recognise the name of John Logie Baird. However, this seems not to hold good for the
younger generation. Certainly, when I taught technology, I was surprised and
rather dismayed to find that few of the young teenagers in my classes knew the
name. In fairness, few knew the name of Marconi either and as for Ambrose Fleming,
Heinrich Hertz and other pioneers of radio communication...
not a chance.
Baird is famous - or deserves to be - for the
invention of television in the UK. That is quite a statement and requires
qualification (see below).
Still, if you asked a knowledgeable Russian citizen who invented TV you may well get the
answer 'Zworykin'. Ask the same question of a similarly well-informed American and the answer
'Farnsworth' and so it goes on, with several countries having claim to being the
first to succeed with television. It does stand as incontrovertible, however, that a
British man was the first person to show the rest of the world genuine
Baird put together
disparate ideas that had been around for years,
at the heart of which was the scanning disc developed by the German
inventor Paul Nipkow in 1884. Nipkow was on the right lines - if you'll pardon the
pun - but the means were not at hand to develop the device into a useable form.
In the early 1920s Baird pressed into use the early amplifying radio valve which had been invented some
years before by DeForest, based upon the Fleming diode. The early valves were
used to boost the weak signals created by the mechanical scanning disc system. Working
virtually alone and always pressed financially, he was able by 1925 to
demonstrate that he had indeed created television.
Baird developed his mechanical
systems until they reached a quality that would support test transmissions. The
BBC, under the stiff-lipped leadership of John Reith held the monopoly on radio transmissions in the UK.
Despite Reith's antipathy toward Baird, the BBC were pressured
into grudgingly allowing him air time and Baird transmitted 30-line low definition images
on medium wave. He knew that higher definition was essential if TV was to become
more than a curiosity. He also understood the need for greater bandwidth that
only short wave transmission could provide, but his requests for tests on
such frequencies were futile, seemingly blocked at every turn by Reith. There
is the misconception that Baird only worked with mechanical TV, an
interesting idea but a technological cul-de-sac. Perhaps this has come
about because his system was beaten by the vast EMI organisation in a
'contest' to decide who should provide TV in Great Britain. It was a
one-sided fight: Baird had far fewer resources than EMI and no support
from the BBC hierarchy. Yet, contrary to popular belief he worked with cathode ray tubes in a number
of ways, creating for instance large screen displays of a projection type using
small and brilliant tubes. How many people were aware that he invented the Telechrome tube, a colour CRT device
long predating the RCA shadowmask? The RCA patent describes this as 'prior art'.
Among other notable achievements, he invented 'Noctovision', a method of seeing by infra-red light (night vision) and
suggested the use of radio waves for a similar purpose, predating radar by some
Baird has, by some,
been dismissed as misguided for pressing ahead with mechanical systems.
Hindsight is truly a wonderful thing: but it should be borne in mind
that, at the time, other mechanical systems had been shown to both be
highly successful and capable of making fortunes. Two obvious examples?
The cinematograph and the gramophone.
A basic form of colour
television was demonstrated by Baird as early as 1928 and his 600
line large screen colour receiver of 1940 was far in advance of anything else
at the time. He was interested in very large screen cinema TV and designed
stereoscopic television transmission and reception before the war. As if all
that wasn't enough, he recorded 30-line picture signals on disc, thereby creating the first video recording system.
whilst struggling for money and battling against poor health. I believe history
will come to see Baird as a much-maligned and badly treated near-genius, a
restlessly brilliant inventor who should justly be considered one of the greats of the twentieth century, alongside
Von Braun and others.
reject any claim to greatness, saying that Baird invented nothing, he just
put together things invented by others. This is grossly unfair. Judged by
the same standard, Edison did not invent the electric
lamp, he just put together glass, tungsten wire, electricity,
things created by others. In my opinion, what Edison created was something
new: lighting by electricity. Baird also invented television, at least in
the sense that it had never been achieved before. There is
nothing new under the sun, or so the old saying goes. This may be so, but
what was definitely new in Britain in the 1920s was Baird's courage in
combining the vague speculations of others to create the foundation
of television, despite powerful opposition and his own physical
Let us hope
that time - and the historical record - will redress the balance and allow
this amazing man the credit he so obviously deserves.
For more on the subject, I urge you
to read the excellent 'John Logie Baird' By Antony Kamm and Malcolm