Television was born in a rented attic in London’s Soho on 2 October 1925.
The moment happened when the Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird, a driven maverick inventor, succeeded in producing an image of the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy that he called Stooky Bill.
Early life and experiments
John Logie Baird was clever, with a curious mind.
As a young child, he was fascinated by technology and was a fledgeling inventor, even installing electric lighting in his parents’ Scottish home when he was a teenager.
Dogged by ill health since childhood and unfit to serve in the First World War (1914-1918), Baird eventually rented a property in Hastings in 1923, hoping the sea air would boost his constitution. Here the budding entrepreneur aspired to make money, inventing a glass razor blade that would never rust and pneumatic shoes with inflated balloons to aid walking. All came to nothing.
But Baird’s dream, along with other early innovators, was to create a way of transmitting and receiving moving images.
Using apparatus improvised from everyday household items, including a tea chest-mounted with an engine, along with a perforated spinning cardboard disc made from a hat box with darning needle spindle and attached bicycle lenses, he finally succeeded in producing a simple outline image of an object.
Laboratory in London’s Soho
Baird moved to London in 1924, renting an attic in Soho, turning it into his laboratory and experimenting obsessively with his complex device – a big rattling, dangerously vibrating machine, subject to constant breakdowns and parts flying off.
He realised he needed publicity to attract investors and help further his mechanical television ambitions.
Demonstrations at Selfridges
The flamboyant American retail impresario, Harry Gordon Selfridge, founded Selfridges department store in London’s Oxford Street in 1909. The huge shop was elegant, glamorous and pioneering – offering shopping as a social and leisure pursuit, rather than a necessity.
Selfridge liked to entice the crowds and was always on the lookout for new inventions – he once displayed the aeroplane flown by Louis Blériot’s during his 1909 history-making cross-Channel flight. Fascinated by the idea of Baird’s ‘televisor’, he invited him to demonstrate it within the store.
Although the three week series of demonstrations was well-received, the primitive equipment was only able to transmit black and white silhouettes, not recognisable faces, on a tiny screen.
The first television image of a face
Back at Frith Street, Baird experimented endlessly during the following months. On 2 October 1925, suddenly everything came together. The apparatus finally functioned properly and Stookie Bill’s actual face appeared on screen with gradations of light and shade.
Baird needed to see if he could transmit a human subject. He quickly ‘borrowed’ the office boy, William Taynton, from downstairs, and successfully repeated the experiment.
It was a thrilling historic moment – the dawn of television.
On 26 January 1926 to gain scientific credibility, Baird gave the first formal public demonstration of his invention at Frith Street, to prove that his system could successfully transmit and receive pictures.
Distinguished members of the Royal Institution (an organisation devoted to scientific education and research) were shown the transmission of Stookie Bill’s image and took turns to be ‘televised’ under powerful lights. It was reported in The Times newspaper.
Baird Television, Covent Garden, London
Not long after this successful demonstration, Baird moved his premises a short distance away to 133 Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden, establishing the headquarters and studios of Baird Television Development Company.
Here Baird continued experimenting and, in 1928, transmitted a television picture across the Atlantic and demonstrated colour television for the first time.
He was ready to begin public broadcasting, but the transmitter he had built on his premises was not strong enough.
Working with the BBC
Several companies, including Marconi, had combined to create the British Broadcasting Committee (known from 1926 as the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, whose general manager was John Reith). It launched the first national radio broadcast, 14 November 1922, from Marconi House in London’s Aldwych.
Baird approached Reith to use one of the BBC’s own aerials on Selfridges’ roof to transmit television. His broadcasts could only take place when BBC wireless transmission was off-air – basically late night to mid-morning.
The first television programmes
The very first televised programme – whose content included brief segments of comedy and singing – was introduced by Naird’s business manager Sydney Moseley and broadcast from Long Acre, Covent Garden, 30 September 1929. Sound and vision were initially broadcast separately and disorientingly at two-minute intervals.
The resolution was very low – television is measured in lines. The more lines, the higher the resolution. Baird’s apparatus had only 30, corresponding to the number of holes in the spinning disc. Analogue television of the future would have 405 lines and later 625.
Building on these successes, Baird began a series of regular broadcasts over the next 6 years, albeit to tiny select audiences, hoping to sell his televisors to the wider public in the future.
On 14 July 1930, he was finally able to broadcast sound and vision simultaneously – first demonstrated by a short play broadcast from Long Acre: ‘The Man with a Flower in his Mouth’: a philosophical conversation in a café between a man with cancer and a businessman who had missed his train.
This first British television play was performed live by actors wearing lurid make-up to help enhance the contrast of the image which was in black and white, hissing and flickering and very small – only about 3-5cm.
Baird Television moves to Crystal Palace, London
In July 1933, Baird Television relocated to the Crystal Palace where it occupied an extensive studio space that could accommodate large productions.
In the first half of 1935, over forty transmissions were made to demonstration sites across the capital, with celebrities from the world of theatre taking part. But television still remained the province of the very well-off, unavailable to the wider public.
However, the company’s technology was rapidly becoming more sophisticated; already resolution was at 180 lines – high definition then. Soon the company would be in a position to deliver the television experience to the general public
To compound the disaster of the Crystal Palace fire, early in 1937 after side-by-side trials, the BBC announced that they were opting for the rival, more modern Marconi/EMI electric television system over Baird’s cumbersome mechanical one. The BBC relocated their television arm to Alexandra Palace in north London.
Television sets then cost £60 (over £4,000 today) and reception was limited to the London area. Wireless was still the public’s favoured affordable medium.
The outbreak of the Second World War, 3 September 1939, saw the service forced off-air among government fears that the television signals would aid enemy targeting.
Although Baird Television went into receivership, Baird continued private research using his extensive personal savings, developing ideas that included high definition colour television.
Baird died on 14 June 1946, aged 57.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
My dad, who was born in 1921, did see one of those pre-war broadcasts. His friend’s elder sister was waitressing in a smart restaurant which had a television installed to entertain the diners, and she smuggled her brother and my dad in to take a look.
Hello John, thank you for sharing
Hastings is in East Sussex 🙂
Hello Simon, thanks for spotting. That’s been corrected.
I don’t know why but think he’s buried in Highgate Cemetery. Is that right?
Excellent article. Since this thread is about television, may I be allowed a “commercial” ?
My father wrote his memoirs in 1941 and they were published in a Scottish edition as “Television and Me” in 2004. A new edition, in the form of an Ebook, will be coming out in the next few months by Birlinn Ltd. (Edinburgh). The Preface and the end notes have been updated.
Useful summary but did it really need the ‘journalese’ of “London’s Soho”, “London’s Oxford St”, “London’s Selfridges” etc?? In context I think people will understand which city these events took place in….
My father told me that John L Baird lived in the big house in Hare lane Esher before he died. I always had doubt about and was never sure that dad told the truth. Plus I never found any proof. If anyone can tell me that I am right!!
My father died in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, on 14 June 1946. Coincidentally, that was the day Donald Trump was born.