Above: A Blue Plaque on the east side of Frith Street.
Soho is well-known for many things but one of the most remarkable is the first public demonstration of television by the inventor John Logie Baird. To say that Baird had studied electronics is putting the case too strongly. He did attend college and gained a basic understanding of electricity but electronics, as we know it today, was still in its infancy. John Logie Baird was born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, in Scotland. In 1905, when he was about 17 or 18 years old, Baird entered the Royal Technical College, in Glasgow (which later became the University of Strathclyde) to follow a course of electrical engineering. Baird passed the course with distinction and then went to the University of Glasgow to study electrical engineering and pure physics. His study on the BSc degree course he was attending was cut short a few months before he was due to take his exams because World War I broke out. Although he intended to return and finish the studies he never did.
Baird was always in poor health even from a young age. He attempted several jobs in Trinidad – one of the two major islands of Trinidad and Tobago, lying a few miles off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. He returned to England and in 1923, still in poor health, his doctor recommended that he live at the seaside, so he moved to Hastings.
While living there, Baird, started experimenting and devised a method of what he called ’Seeing by Wireless’. The apparatus was partly mechanical and the only electronic component was a photo-cell to receive the light from the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy that was illuminated by a strong light. Being made up of wheels and lenses, the system only employed a scan of about 20 lines. The later line scan used by the BBC for broadcasting was 405 lines and that was succeeded by 625 lines. However, it was a start and although it was made up of simple lenses it displayed a grey-scale image by electronic means.
Baird moved to London and gave a demonstration on the 26 January 1926 in a room on the top floor of a building at 22 Frith Street, Soho. It was the first ever public demonstration of television. His large mechanical machine acted 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 the head of a man that Baird asked to sit on a chair while the demonstration took place. The display apparatus then showed his head on a screen.
It took place in the evening in front of an invited audience, in a small attic room. 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 some very simple apparatus, Baird had transmitted an image using only electronic means. It was nothing short of remarkable.
Other inventors were working on what we now call television in the United States and their progress was more sophisticated but Baird was the first to carry out a demonstration. Baird’s semi-mechanical device was overtaken by an all-electronic one but he should be given credit for achieving his goal all by himself. Others perfected the electronic process but not without enormous funds and teams of technicians working for years.