Baird and Ninety Years of Television


The 26th of January 2016 marked the 90th anniversary of the first ever demonstration of television. It was given by John Logie Baird. Remarkably, the demonstration was with a large mechanical machine acting as the ‘television camera’. It was connected to a photocell which sent the signal along a wire, into another room where there was a similar primitive piece of apparatus displaying the ‘picture’. The ‘camera’ was pointing towards a man’s head and the display then showed his head on a screen.

It took place that evening in front of an invited audience, in a small attic room of a building in Frith Street, in Soho. The large terraced house is still there today. The ground floor is in use as a restaurant called Bar Italia and on the wall outside is a Blue Plaque recording the fact. The attic was small and the audience was a group of scientists who had been assembled to watch the proceedings. Being so small, they had to watch in groups of just six people at a time. Bearing in mind that they were all scientists, even they could hardly believe what they saw. After the demonstration was completed, Baird found one of the men crawling around on the floor under the table that was used to support the apparatus. When Baird asked him what he was looking for, the man replied that he was looking for the mirrors that Baird had hidden from view in order to carry out the demonstration. Of course, there were no ‘hidden mirrors’. Although the demonstration used very simple apparatus, Baird had transmitted an image using only electronic means. It was nothing short of remarkable.

It should be pointed out that Baird’s knowledge of electronics was very basic but, with what he had learned, he figured out a way to invent a machine for ‘seeing by wireless’ as he called it. The word television came into use some time later. Not only did Baird demonstrate the principles of television on that evening but he went on to build electronic television screens in his own laboratory. Later still, he built and demonstrated large television screens for theatre audiences; high definition televisions with resolution that are only now being sold in the latest television equipment; he also demonstrated colour television and even three-dimensional television displays. He was a truly remarkable man. His laboratory consisted of just two people – Baird and his assistant.

Although Baird was born in Scotland, he had spent much of his early life in various parts of Britain and even in the West Indies. Once he had devised his television equipment he realised that he needed to be based in London. He lived in South East London – in a large house in Crescent Wood Road, which is a turning off the road called Sydenham Hill. His house is still there but it has been converted into flats. That house also has a Blue Plaque recording him being resident there.

Baird had been in poor health for most of his life. In the 1940s he moved to Bexhill. In 1946 he suffered a stroke and died a short time later. He was 57 years old.


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