John Logie Baird lived from 14 August 1888 to 14 June 1946. He was an engineer who is best remembered as the inventor of the first working electromechanical television system. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Baird was born in Helensburgh. He went to school at Larchfield School in Helensburgh and studied at the University of Glasgow, though his degree course was interrupted by World War One and he never graduated. By the early 1920s, Baird was experimenting with ways of transmitting pictures from one place to another. In doing so he was one of a number of pioneers around the globe trying to crack this problem: but he was the first to successfully transmit a live, moving image in halftones from reflected light. Baird's success came from improving the photoelectric cell he was using and by more effectively managing the signal between the photoelectric cell and the video amplifier.
By early 1924 he had demonstrated in his laboratory in London to the Radio Times that he could transmit simple silhouette images like moving fingers in front of a light source. He went on to give a three week public demonstration of this technology in action at Selfridges in London, from late March 1925. On 2 October 1925 he successfully transmitted the first picture using half tones and reflected light, of the head of a ventriloquist's dummy, producing a 30 line vertically scanned image at 5 pictures per second. Baird then co-opted an office boy, William Taynton, to model for the picture so he could see it working with a human face. The world's first ever TV appearance fee was half-a-crown, or 12.5 pence in today's money.
Baird gave the first public demonstration of the transmission of the picture of a human face to members of the Royal Institution and a reporter from The Times on 26 January 1926 in his lab at 22 Frith Street, Soho. By now the scan rate had improved to 12.5 pictures per second, producing the first successful television system to be demonstrated anywhere in the world. The following year, 1927, Baird successfully transmitted a television signal over telephone lines between London and Glasgow.
In 1928, Baird set up the Baird Television Development Company Ltd, and made the first transatlantic television transmission from London to New York. During the same year he made the first television programme for the BBC; demonstrated the world's first color television transmission; and successfully demonstrated stereoscopic television. He went on to demonstrate a theatre television system in 1930, using a screen two feet by five feet, at the London Coliseum, as well as in Berlin, Paris, and Stockholm. By 1939 he had improved his theatre projection system to televise a boxing match on a screen 15ft by 12ft.
Between 1929 and 1935, the BBC broadcast its television programmes exclusively using the 30 line Baird system. However late in 1936 the BBC began testing Baird's improved 240 line mechanical scanning system alongside EMI-Marconi's 405 line electronic scanning system. Early in 1937 the BBC ceased transmissions with Baird's system, shifting wholly to the EMI-Marconi electronic system.
Baird continued to produce innovations in the field of television. On 16 August 1944 he gave the world's first demonstration of a fully electronic colour television display using a 600 line system. And in the same year he persuaded the British Government to adopt as its post-war broadcast standard his proposed 1000 line Telechrome electronic colour system. This would have given a picture quality comparable with modern HDTV, but the initiative lost all momentum: in part because of competing priorities for resources in post-war Britain, and in part as a result of Baird's death at his home in Bexhill-on-Sea following a stroke in 1946. Instead, Britain had to make do with the monochrome 405 line standard until 1964, when the the 625 line system was introduced, followed by colour TV in 1967.
Baird did not focus his creative genius wholly on developing television. As a young man he had unsuccessfully tried to create diamonds by heating graphite; he had invented a glass razor that was rust-proof, but which shattered in use; and he tried to invent pneumatic shoes, using balloons that burst. He also, with some commercial success, invented and marketed thermal socks. In 1928 he produced a primitive video recording system that used a 78rpm record to play a 30 line video signal. He also dabbled in areas as disparate as fibre-optics, radio direction finding, infrared night viewing and radar.
John Logie Baird may not have produced the system that popularised television to a mass market after World War Two, but he was the man who pushed the medium forward at a critical stage in its development, and who achieved a series of firsts in doing so. Today he is remembered as one of the fathers of television, and there is a statue of him in his home town of Helensburgh: and a (since renamed) bar named after him on Edinburgh's Royal mile.