8 Facts About John Logie Baird, Who Invented the Mechanical Television 90 Years Ago
Last night’s episode of The X-Files was brought to you by John Logie Baird. The same goes for Sunday night’s episode, the NFL Championship games that preceded it, and every other television series, movie, documentary, mockumentary, home shopping network, late-night infomercial, or anything else you’ve ever watched on a television set. Because it’s John Logie Baird who invented the mechanical television set in the first place, which he unveiled to the world 90 years ago today. Here are eight facts about the man behind the moving images.
1. HE WAS A BORN INVENTOR.
Even as a child, Baird—who was born in Helensburgh, Scotland—showed great aptitude for innovation. As a youngster, he facilitated easier communication with a few of his best friends by setting up a rudimentary telephone exchange from his bedroom that would allow him to quickly connect with his buddies.
2. HE NEVER GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE.
After graduating from Larchfield Academy, Baird attended the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, followed by the University of Glasgow. It was during his college years that World War I broke out, forcing Baird to suspend his studies. Because he was plagued by health problems throughout his life, he was deemed unfit for active duty. So he took a job as a superintendent engineer at Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company, and never looked back.
3. HIS TELEVISION PROTOTYPE CONTAINED A NUMBER OF HOUSEHOLD ITEMS.
Building upon the work of the many scientists who had developed different versions and components of the television set before him—including Alexander Bain, Arthur Korn, and Paul Gottlieb Nipkow—Baird used whatever items he could find to begin building a prototype for his mechanical television, including an old hatbox, some bicycle lights, a pair of scissors, darning needles, glue, and sealing wax.
4. SELFRIDGES CUSTOMERS GOT AN EARLY PEEK AT WHAT WAS TO COME.
Fans of Mr. Selfridge know that London’s famed department store loved to put on a show. In 1925, Gordon Selfridge, Jr. heard about Baird’s experiments and persuaded him to spend three weeks giving personal demonstrations of the technology to the store’s customers. Baird was paid £25.00 (about $35) per week for the gig.
The store sent out a circular, which stated:
Selfridge’s Present the First Public Demonstration of Television In the Electrical Section (First Floor) Television is to light what telephony is to sound- it means the INSTANTANEOUS transmission of a picture, so the observer at the “receiving” end can see, to all intents and purposes, what is a cinematograph view of what is happening at the “sending” end.
Though the store was packed with curious onlookers throughout the three-week period, the response was mostly disappointment.
5. SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS INSANE.
On October 2, 1925, Baird managed to successfully transmit the first television picture with a greyscale image. Eager to share his news with the world, Baird visited the offices of the Daily Express newspaper and asked to speak to the news editor. The editor's reply? “For God's sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who's down there. He says he's got a machine for seeing by wireless! Watch him—he may have a razor on him.”
6. A REPORTER FROM THE TIMES DIDN’T THINK MUCH OF HIS INVENTION.
After tinkering with the technology a bit more, Baird presented his television—known as a “televisor”—to members of the Royal Institution on January 26, 1926. A reporter from The Times was also present, and wasn’t super impressed, stating: “The image as transmitted was faint and often blurred.” Fortunately, he did concur that Baird’s invention “substantiated a claim” that broadcasting pictures over a distance was possible.
7. HE’S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FIRST TRANSATLANTIC TELEVISION BROADCAST.
Over the next several years, Baird continued to make improvements to his televisor, and kept increasing the distance that it could transmit content. In 1927, he managed to transmit an image a total of 438 miles between London and Glasgow. On February 9, 1928, his Baird Television Development Company produced the first transatlantic television broadcast, from London to New York. In 2015, a rare recording of this broadcast was going to be made available for sale to the public; an anonymous donor stepped in to stop that from happening.
8. HE INVENTED THE 3D TELEVISION, TOO.
Even with all those firsts, Baird kept pushing for more. On August 10, 1928, he demonstrated the first 3D television, which he called “stereovision.” “By applying the stereoscope principle to television, it has now become possible to transmit television images with all the appearance of depth and solidity; and, by a further combination of colored television with stereoscopic television, the complete illusion of images in natural colors, and with depth and solidity becomes possible,” wrote the Radio Times in November of 1928. “All this has been recently demonstrated in the Baird Laboratories.”
Baird passed away on June 14, 1946, at the age of 57.