Above: Baird’s original equipment on show in the Hastings Museum. Notice the large wooden wheel with lenses mounted on it (on the right). The round black object towards the left is an electric motor that turned the wheel at high speed.
“Reminiscing the Past”
We have just celebrated 80 years of television broadcasting in Britain. The very first broadcast was on 2 November 1936 and so it would seem appropriate to recount an event that happened when I had just started work as a lecturer. Before telling my story, we had better explain how Baird relates to the story of television.
Baird’s Remarkable Invention
John Logie Baird had the idea in the 1920s for building a machine that would start the world on the long road to developing television. When Baird had his idea, radio had already been invented and he was familiar with that. However, radio only transmitted sound. Baird wanted to develop a machine for ‘Seeing by Wireless’ – as he called it. The word ‘television’ was yet to be invented. It was while he was out for a walk at Fairlight – high on the cliffs just outside Hastings, on the south coast of England – that he began to realise how he could make such a machine. It was a very simple device and the definition was very poor, only a few lines in fact. In Britain we now have 625 lines on a modern television, with even more if you buy a more expensive model. His machine had less than 20 lines but the principle was established and that is why Baird is considered such a genius.
The year was 1923. He worked in great secrecy on his machine in Hastings and then in London before making his first demonstration on the evening of 26 January 1926 on the top floor of a building in Frith Street, in Soho. The audience consisted mainly of scientists from the Royal Institution. As a result, Baird either made personally or had other people make several replicas of his amazing machine. The apparatus consisted of a large wooden wheel – about three feet across – with two inch diameter lenses mounted on it. Everything was mechanical apart from an electronic photo cell. It was quite ‘rough and ready’ because it was all hand-made.
A short time after that demonstration Baird was living in a house at No 3 Crescent Wood Road, a turning off Sydenham Hill, and he did much of his research there, with laboratories built in the large back garden. It was only a short walk from where Crystal Palace stood. About three miles away from where Baird’s old house still stands is Knight’s Hill where, at the time, was Norwood Technical College.
A Remarkable Find
Although I now lecture on the history of London my ‘day job’ years ago was that of an electronic engineer. I spent many years as a college lecturer training students for jobs in electronics. I worked in Norwood Technical College, later to be called South London College. My head of department when I started was a man whose specialist subject was television.
One afternoon I was supervising students in a small laboratory that my head of department also used as his office. It should be explained that our college was extremely short of space at the time because we were about to have a rebuild of the entire premises. It was not a large lab and I was fairly familiar with its contents. We had a television transmitter in the room which was quite an unusual item because I am talking about the 1960s. The room also had a large number of other pieces of electronic equipment. It also had what can only be described as a considerable amount of ‘junk’ stored underneath some of the benches. That afternoon my head of department entered the room with a letter in his hand and, seeing me with the students, he handed it to me and said ‘What do you think they mean?’
The letter was from a society which had a small museum dedicated to Baird’s life and hush inventions. They collected as much of his electronic equipment as they could for their museum. In the letter it said that they believed that our college possessed some of Baird’s original equipment. The letter continued along the lines that if we would give them permission, they would like to come down and examine it. When I finished reading the letter my head of department looked to me for an answer. ‘Well’ I said, ‘there are some wooden wheels with lenses in them under that bench over there, perhaps they mean that’. Both my head of department and I knew all too well what Baird’s apparatus looked like. By the 1960s any text book explaining how television worked always carried photographs of Baird’s rather strange early device.
It had never occurred to us that it was really a duplicate of Baird’s original equipment. We thought that it was some visual aid, possibly built by an earlier member of staff, to give an idea of how primitive Baird’s machine really was. My head of department wrote a reply inviting the society to visit. It should further be explained that they were a Scottish society, founded near Baird’s original birthplace of Hellensburgh. They therefore came a long way to pay is a visit.
On the appointed day the members of the society arrived and were invited to examine what anyone else would have regarded as a pile of old bits of wood and a few lenses. Because they were already very familiar with the apparatus, having seen other copies elsewhere, they confirmed that it was indeed one of Baird’s original machines. My head of department saw no point in keeping the equipment when this society would lovingly restore it to its original working condition so he said they could take it with them. They, of course, were delighted with the offer because they had thought they would only be granted permission to see it. They assumed that we would be keeping it due of its historical significance.
When they departed we had a conversation about why the equipment had landed up at the college. It is only a few miles from where Baird had lived and we wondered if, being a technical college, Baird had given lectures there about his apparatus to a group of students or possibly a public demonstration. Our enquiries came to nothing but it was exciting to think that, without knowing it, we had been custodians of one of Baird’s original machines for ’Seeing by Wireless’.
Above: No 3 Crescent Wood Road – the house near Sydenham Hill in which John Logie Baird lived for many years.
The 80 Years Anniversary
As was pointed out at the start of this article, it was on 2 November 1936 that the first television broadcast in Britain was made by the BBC. The broadcast used the Baird mechanical system and then it was repeated using the EMI electronic system. The broadcast was about 10 minutes long and was made from Alexander Palace – which housed the studio, with the transmitter nearby and a tall television mast on the roof. It had been intended that test transmissions of both systems should last for six months but after only three such transmissions Baird’s mechanical system was abandoned in favour of the much clearer electronic system.
On 2 November 2016 the BBC celebrated the 80th anniversary of broadcasting television in Britain. The original programme had not been recorded because it was impossible to record it electronically in those days. The whole event had not been filmed either. Short cine films of parts of the transmission were made and a few still photographs were also taken. The original script and programme schedule also remains. They are the only record of that historic event. Remarkably a tap-dancer, who took part in the ‘show’ – only 12 years old at the time – is still alive and she was invited to the special evening. Baird’s one and only technical assistant – now 104 years of age – is still alive and remembers that first broadcast vividly. Baird had sold the rights to his equipment to another engineer by the time of the broadcast which meant that Baird did no take part in the BBC broadcast and was not even invited to attend the inaugural evening.
None of the equipment used in that first broadcast has survived. Unfortunately all of Baird’s early equipment was destroyed by fire where it was being stored. To celebrate the occasion, BBC4 decided to ask three notable scientists to re-create both sets of original equipment in the original premises at Alexander Palace to make a ‘broadcast’ on the exact day of the 80th anniversary. A 90 minute documentary was made showing the results of their successful attempts, broadcast on the anniversary night. To think what they started. The whole world is now ‘glued to the box’ almost all day and all night!
For subscription members there is a an on-line booklet about Baird with pictures of his early work with television. All members will receive a secure link by email.