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Subject: Dead Media Working Note 11.9

Dead medium: Baird Mechanical Television Part Two: John Logie Baird

From: (Trevor Blake)

Sources: (((See Note 11.8)))


by Trevor Blake


Scotsman John Logie Baird had long been an entrepreneur and inventor. When he was twelve he built his own telephone. He had invested in chutney in the West Indies, artificial diamonds in Glasgow and soap in London. In 1918 he held the patent for the Baird Undersock, a sock worn beneath regular socks. In 1920, at the age of 31, he began his life's work == the undercredited discovery and development of television.

Beginning with a personal ad in the London Times ("SEEING BY WIRELESS: Inventor of apparatus wishes to hear from someone who will assist [not financially] in making working model"), Baird set out to build a working television system using borrowed money and the material he had at hand, which included darning needles, hat boxes, a Rich Mix biscuit tin, sealing wax and a bicycle lantern. His Nipkow disk was cut from an old tea chest.

In February 1923 he entered the shop of Hasting radio dealer Victor Mill and asked for assistance, saying "I've fitted up an apparatus for transmitting pictures and I can't get it to go." Mills accompanied Baird back to his laboratory/apartment and waved his hand in front of the neon: when Baird shouted "it's here, it's here!", the first real-time electronic moving picture in world history occurred. Not long after Baird demonstrated his system to the local press, but was evicted from his apartment.

Baird relocated to London and set up a second and lab in Soho. Using ventriloquist dummies (better able to withstand the intense heat and light of his equipment), he succeeded in transmitting a televised image one yard across his room. In March 1925 he gave the first public demonstration of television, sponsored by Selfridge's Department store.

A demonstration of television in January 1926 in Baird's small, drafty attic apartment failed to impress the Royal Institute, particularly when the long white beard of one of the men became entangled in the mechanism. In Autumn of the next year he transmitted eight miles, and formed a company: Television Ltd.

The first recorded television images were made on 10" wax disks called Phonovisors, no later than September 1927 in Baird's labs: he had been awarded a patent for this technology the year before. Phonovisor disks captured 12.5 frames of 30-line resolution television per second. Baird also patented Noctovision, the use of infrared light in television, and demonstrated color television (using a rotating filter system) in 1927.

By 1928, Baird Televisors sold for between 20 and 150 pounds (kits sold for 16 guineas). Baird's assistant Benjamin Clapp travelled to New York City to receive the first transoceanic television signal. The box of equipment he used was labeled 'experimental radio equipment' to prevent customs from seizing it as a dangerous or profitable new technology.

It took two months before a break in the weather allowed Clapp to see the image of Stukey Bill (((a.k.a. "Stooky Bill"))), the ventriloquist dummy head used in the Baird studio, but once the press was called in the event received one inch headlines across the nation. On the way home aboard the *Berengeria,* Clapp allowed the ship's wireless operator to see his fiance in England via television while 1,000 miles out at sea.

Eighteen licensed transmitters were in operation in the United States by the late 1920s, transmitting faces and silhouettes. General Electric's House of Magic recorded synchronized sound and pictures in New York. In 1928 Bell Telephone transmitted a television image from New York to Washington D. C. The threat of losing television to the USA gave Baird leverage in convincing the BBC to begin television transmission.

In 1928 Baird convinced a London surgeon to lend him an eyeball removed from a young man's head. In his own words...

"As soon as I was given the eye, I hurried in a taxicab to the laboratory. Within a few minutes I had the eye in the machine. Then I turned on the current and the waves carrying television were broadcast from the aerial. The essential image for television passed through the eye within half and hour after the operation. On the following day the sensitiveness of the eye's visual nerve was gone. The optic was dead. I had been dissatisfied with the old-fashioned selenium cell and lens. I felt that television demanded something more refined. The most sensitive optical substance known is the nerve of the human eye... I had to wait a long time to get the eye because unimpaired ones are not often removed by surgeons... Nothing was gained from the experiment. It was gruesome and a waste of time."

The BBC began mechanical television transmission in 1929. In July 1930, the BBC transmitted Pirandello's play "The Man with a Flower in His Mouth" in 240 lines of resolution. The heads and shoulders of the actors were shown as they spoke their lines and sat on a stool: when another actor was to be shown, a screen was held before the camera as the actors exchanged seats.

The Derby was televised in June 1931: a camera waited at the finish line until the moment when the horses and jockeys passed by. The BBC was transmitting four days a week by August 1932.

By this time, Baird's financial backers began to insist he look into the electronic television of Philo Farnsworth. When Farnsworth travelled to England while raising money in his legal battles with RCA/EMI, he met with Baird and demonstrated his system. Baird explained the superiority of his system to Farnsworth, but after watching several minutes of cathode ray tube television he left the room without a word.

Baird's sponsors gave Farnsworth $50,000 to supply Baird with electronic television equipment. A fire that nearly destroyed the Alexander Palace studios soon after closed down the BBC, and when they reopened they were fully committed to the electronic television of EMI.

After 1,500 successful mechanical transmissions, the BBC was ready to switch to the EMI system. Beginning September 1935, they held a final six-month trial, during which the two systems were transmitted on alternate weeks from Alexander Palace, 12 miles north of London. Studio A used the EMI system, while Studio B used the Baird film pickup system.

Baird's system lost, and on 2 November 1936 the BBC transmitted the first high-definition television signal using the [electronic] EMI system. Many executives and technicians were invited to the studio on opening day, but when Baird showed up he was left wandering the halls, shut out from celebrating the technology he had developed.

The final mechanical television transmission in England occurred in February 1937.

Baird continued to develop television technology. In 1940, he introduced the Telechrome, an electronic color television system in which two electron guns scanned 600 - 650 lines on a white mica sheet coated with orange phosphor on one side and blue-green phosphor on the other. War time restrictions prevented full scale production of the Telechrome. At the time of his death in 1946, John Logie Baird was working on stereoscopic television.

Trevor Blake
127 House - An Independent Archive of Systematic Ideology
P.O. Box 2321 Portland OR 97208-2321 USA - (503) 635-1796 -

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