A tea card of John Logie Baird issued by Brooke Bond Tea, from the collection of Russell A. Potter

John Logie Baird


John Logie Baird, though little recognized in the US, was perhaps the most remarkable inventor in the early history of television. In a period of scarcely three years from 1924 to 1927, he invented the first successful mechanical-electric television system, infrared television (dubbed "Noctovision"), stereoscopic television, and the earliest means of recording a television signal, Phonovision. He also staged the first public demonstrations of television, and made the earliest transatlantic broadcast of a television signal. For several years in the early 1930's, 30-line television broadcasts via BBC facilities were produced by Baird's company, and the quality and variety of these programs was quite high, given the limited bandwidth the BBC and the GPO allowed for them.

The Baird company's connection with the Crystal Palace dates to July of 1933, when they took a lease on the South Tower and part of the main building. At the time, Baird's were competing with others to win the endorsement of the BBC, and had turned to an "intermediate film" process -- a system where an image was filmed on conventional film stock, rushed through a series of developing and fixing tanks, and exposed to a scanner for broadcast -- click here for an image of this apparatus.

This system, ultimately, was eclipsed by fully electronic television (which, it should be noted, at the time had problems of its own with drop-outs and distortion). The Crystal Palace fire in 1936 destroyed much of the Baird laboratories, and when the BBC chose the EMI-Marconi electronic system, the company's connection with broadcast television largely ceased. Baird himself, working in his private laboratory near the Crystal Palace on Crescent Wood Road, continued to work on a variety of projects, among them large-screen "cinema television" for use in theatres, color television, and color 3-D television.It is a reflection on Baird's genius that, working on his own with only two assistants, he perfected high-definition television with a greater number of lines per inch than any standard since (including the current HDTV standard).

Donald McLean has a fabulous site at tvdawn.com which includes the eerie images of faces which he restored from Baird's experimental recordings in the 1920's -- a very long time indeed before VCRs!

Something of intellectual nationalism often seems to be at work; the Americans champion Farnsworth; the Germans Nipkow -- but Baird, though well known in the UK, seems to be a blank to most Americans.  This situation will hopefully be remedied somewhat by the new, authoritative account of Baird's life and work, John Logie Baird: A Life, co-written by Malcolm Baird and Anthony Kamm. I also recommend Don's book, Restoring Baird's Image, which though hard to find in US bookstores can be ordered via links on his website or from amazon.co.uk.

Information on Baird on the web is scattered, but there are some good sites here and there. The best article about Baird's years in the Crystal Palace location, Crystal Palace Television Studios, comes from an online magazine, Soundscapes, and was written by Baird expert Ray Herbert. There is also an excellent page on Baird's Crystal Palace years created by Gary Hayes and Kathrin Brunnert, which can be found on their Korkyt's Crystal Palace pages. There is an article by Will Annetts at an online digital encyclopedia, and another site at a media museum in Canada.

The best overall site for the history of early television is Tom Genova's Television History: The First 75 Years, which has a rich collection of texts and images from and of early television. A set of lecture slides used by Baird himself is a particularly fascinating area of this site.

I don't plan to offer an exhaustive treatment of Baird here -- just to present some historical images and texts that I have come upon and believe ought to be better known, with a list of links to current and future sites where more detailed information can be found.

1.NEW! A new biography of John Logie Baird is now available

2. John Logie Baird in his Frith Street laboratory, 1920's

 3. The Frith Street location as it looks today

4. John Logie Baird demonstrates his Televisor at Selfridge's Department Store on Oxford Street in London, 1925

5. Early interest in Baird's Televisor was so great, and the queues to see it so long, that some made it out to be a riot -- as shown in this cartoon from 1928

6. A trading card of Baird from my collection of tobacco ephemera

7. A few images of Baird's Televisor

8. An early advert for a demonstration version of Baird's cinema television

9. A diagram of the Baird's Crystal Palace Studios from 1935.

10. A photograph showing the Baird company's "Intermediate Film" apparatus undergoing tests at the Crystal Palace facility.

11. A rather haunting illustration, "A Successful Attempt to See by Wireless," from Graphic of 28 February 1925.

12. A set of three tea cards of Baird and his Televisor issued in the 1960's
  13. When it comes to television, I confess myself a lifelong viewer -- click here for an image of my own early viewing days.


Comments or questions to: Russell A. Potter, rpotter@ric.edu