John Reith

John Reith

John Logie Baird was born on 14th August 1888 in the prosperous River Clyde estuary town of Helensburgh, the fourth son of the Reverend John Baird.

John Logie Baird was the first person to publicly demonstrate real television, the first to achieve transatlantic transmission of television pictures, the first to transmit "outside broadcasts" (the Epsom Derby in 1931), the first to demonstrate colour television, he developed stereoscopic (3-D) television which is as yet not commercially exploited, and developed the first video recordings, he developed high-definition television in colour, and invented the first all-electronic colour television tube. He also made significant advances in radio imaging, secret signaling, fibre optics, infra-red scanning, and fast facsimile transmission.

Yet in 1957 when there was an attempt to convert the family home in Helensburgh into a public Museum of Television, the move was thwarted by powerful figures in government who, according to JLB's son Malcolm said, "Baird did not invent television". Considering the assistance JLB made to the war effort with his contributions to radar and signaling, this was ill reward for a remarkable man.

The story of John Logie Baird and television is indelibly bound to the tale of another son of the Glasgow education system who is intrinsically associated with television. One, John Logie Baird (JLB) was an indefatigable champion and the other, John Reith, was implacable in his opposition.

John Reith was the first director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) from 1922 to 1938. In 1906, J.C.W. Reith, also the son of a manse, was a fellow pupil with John Logie Baird at the Royal Technical College in Glasgow where both studied electrical engineering. At college, Reith was a bully. He and JLB crossed swords, something Reith never forgot or forgave. Reith was eventually withdrawn from the college by his father following complaints from the parents of two other boys.

And when JLB approached the BBC to start broadcasting television, Reith was always the obdurate obstacle. It was only following pressure from a Parliamentary Committee that in 1929 the BBC began experimental broadcasts. And when the decision was made on which standard the BBC would adopt, Marconi-EMI was preferred over the Baird technology.

However, Reith got his come-uppance in 1938 when the BBC board of governors, tired of his autocracy, engineered his dismissal in a boardroom coup. Reith never forgave them and despite being ennobled and subsequently holding senior positions in British commerce, died an embittered man.

JLB was never a well man. A chronic thyroid condition meant that he was extremely intolerant of cold weather and even on the warmest of days could often be seen wrapped up in overcoat and scarf. This may have been the inspiration for his first invention, the Baird Undersock, "warm in winter, cool in summer". Consisting of an unbleached half hose sprinkled with borax, they sold well. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of his destination, despite it being profitable, in 1919 Baird decided to close the sock operation.
JLB with his wife Margaret Albue and their child Diana. Margaret suffered from post natal depression and would be separated from JLB for two years.
JLB with his wife Margaret and their child Diana. Margaret suffered from post natal depression and would be separated from JLB for two years.

He left the UK for the warmer climes of Trinidad where he started a jam making business. Unfortunately, the jam-making process attracted thousands of insects that inevitably ended up in the sweet syrupy soup and rendered the business unviable. He lost most of the money he had made on socks.

He also lost his girlfriend Alice, who married another man in his absence. Demonstrating the obstinacy that would stand him in such good stead for television's challenges, on his return to the UK in 1921 he visited Alice and her husband and negotiated a settlement whereby Alice would spend weeks at a time with Baird in his home. This arrangement continued until Baird's own marriage to Margaret Albu in 1931.

Baird first filed a patent for a television design in July 1923 and the following year developed the working prototype. The 'Televisor' was, almost literally, a string and chewing gum contraption. But it worked and Baird was able to transmit the image of a Maltese cross to a receiver ten feet away.

As well as genius, Baird also had a flair for publicity. Public demonstrations of the Televisor in Selfridges attracted audiences and venture capital and a private company Television Ltd. was born.

A decade of fantastic development followed. It was interrupted by the Second World War and a period where JLB developed radar, signalling and image facsimile technologies for public good and not private gain. In the preceding ten years, Baird was Managing Director of a sizable business which solved many of the most intractable problems associated with television. Yet he was never a big company man and continued low-scale experiments in outbuildings at his home, entirely financed out of his own pocket.

It was this more than anything else that meant that when he died in 1946 following a stroke, that his estate was valued at a few thousand pounds. Fortunately for Margaret and his two children, his employers continued to pay a modest pension to the family, even after subsequent take-overs of the company.

Baird was a modest man, and a quiet one. He was also brilliant. His was one of many contributions to the race to produce commercial television. His contribution was to be the first to produce most of the milestones.

If anyone ever tells you that an American invented television, smile nicely and tell them that the first person to publicly demonstrate television pictures, the first to achieve transatlantic transmission of television pictures, the first to transmit "outside broadcasts" and the first to demonstrate colour television was a Scot, and his name was John Logie Baird. Don't forget to tell them that JLB also invented socks.

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