John Logie-Baird – A more critical look at the work

There appear to be two camps when any appreciation (or otherwise) of Baird is being discussed. G3JPJ (I cannot find out even this gentleman’s name from Call books. He is not listed in the 1970 book at all) is a soldier in the pro-Baird camp and is prepared to accept much of the nonsense that surrounds Baird and his early television work, My first acquaintance with television was in 1936 when as a schoolboy SWI, I visited my first amateur radio station. This was owned by C2HB and located a few miles west of Macclesfield in East Cheshire. C2H8 had a Baird Televisor.

The 30 line transmissions had stopped less than a year earlier but the machine was still in lull working order and its owner switched it on and fed a BBC music broadcast to its input. We saw some remarkable patterns on the tiny viewing hole. My host showed me the disc speed control at the front centre and said one had to be constantly twiddling with it to hold any kind of picture and that the entertainment value was almost nil once the thrill of receiving the first images was realised.

I knew Norman Blackburne G2AX and met him often when my pal the late Howard Thomas G6QB lived in Turkey Road Bexhill with the Blackburnes. Norman once told us that he often wished he and his Hastings radio friends had never met Baird. They were never thanked in any way for the voluntary efforts made to assist the inventor. Without Vie Mills’ valve amplifiers Baird would never have made any progress with his primitive Nipkow disc system.

A few years ago I stayed at a Hotel in Torquay where the proprietor’s father had a shack’ and the call sign G6GR. EL (Ernie) Gardiner a one time President of the RSGB had been a former employee with the Baird Company. He had nothing good to tell of Baird, and said that the best thing he did was to leave that organisation.

Baird was not ‘The inventor of television’ but was fortunate in gaining massive publicity for each progressive achievement. This technique had been perfected by Marconi many years earlier. Like Marconi, Baird employed skilled engineers and electronics experts who worked and patented many developments in the Baird name. If you can look at old copies of the Wireless World, which was originally the official organ of the RSGB, for March 19th and 26th 1924 you will be able to read a well illustrated article by Nicholas hanger about the Television work of the Hungarian Dionys Mihaly. Over 71/2 pages there are details, circuits and photos of Mihaly’s apparatus. He began his experiments in 1916 and by 1919 could send by wire or wireless black and white pictures measuring l10 ms.x 10 cms in size. He used a mirror system and no discs. Later in the 193O’s the Mihaly-Taub mirror system in Germany could give a high definition TV picture but was of course doomed when fully electronic TV took over.

Heroes when remembered years later are often the stimulus for myths. Geoff Hutchinson (a writer with no electronic skills) in his slim book the Pioneer of Television, Baird’ gives us a few. Did Vic Mills run a wireless business? I think not but am willing to listen to any proof of this statement. Did Baird really carry out investigations into radar with experiments carried out on the West Hill and the Queens Arcade premises Tosh!  Baird was an electronics greenhorn at that time despite his training in electrical engineering. Other books perpetuate myths surrounding Baird,

How could poorly received TV pictures on the 30 line system be blamed on the weather? The transmissions were from 2L0 on a wavelength of 261 metres! The weather excuse was given to Peter Eckersley, former Chief Engineer at the BBC. In his son’s book Prospero’s Wireless’ which is a detailed biography of Peter there is much to read concerning Baird and his company.

Eckersley said that he was often tricked by the Baird Company whose methods seemed to him to border on the fraudulent. In a September 1928 issue of Popular Wireless, P.P. (Peter) Eckersley said outright that the Baird system was only a stunt – “The flickering picture had no shading, the subject’s movements were blurred, the screen was tiny (3 in. by 2 in.) and the camera which could only see head and shoulders had to be bolted to the floor”. Eckerslyy thought the Baird system had no future potential.

Recently, the Hastings Council paid at auction £70,000 for some of Baird’s letters and papers. They seemed determined to use Baird as some kind of talisman to lure visitors to the town. Note the road signs saying that Hastings is the birthplace of television. Bexhill claims to be the birthplace of motor racing.. It takes tone to copy one. The Council Tax payers of Hastings might have preferred the £70,000 being spent on a more substantial amenity.

If any young student is seeking a subject for a PhD degree in Psychology: might I suggest John Logie Baird? Remember the short circuit of the electric power generators at the Clyde Valley Electrical Company in an attempt to make diamonds; The Borax treated under socks. The Jam Factory in Jamaica; the Australian Honey venture; the resin soap: the balloons in the boots; the glass razor blade; and what about the 2,000 volts derived from dry batteries. What was that for? None of his TV apparatus needed 2,000 volts so was he still trying to generate diamonds from carbon?

There is a myth that Baird sent his TV signals to London by radio. The only local amateurs at that time (Mills was licenced later) were the Chief Fire Officer Colin McDougall and the novelist William Le Oueux G2AZ. The latter had a powerful station along Marina St Leonards. It is inconceivable that all Baird’s apparatus was transported and re-assembled at Le Queux’s home. It is also even more unlikely that Le Queux dismantled and took his gear down to Queens Arcade where there was no way to erect a suitable antenna. McDougall used low power and the same problems outlined apply.

No doubt my words will provoke a reaction from the pro-Baird Camp but I am not alone. Only last week (as I write) on Thursday December 22nd this appeared in a letter to the Guardian newspaper.  But his enthusiasm for John Logie Baird, second in this poll, is misplaced. Baird’s claim on television had more to do with spin doctoring than substance.

His TV was based on pre first world war German pioneering and came as close as it ever did to viability in the hands of German engineers in the late 1930s. He did, however market a medicated under-sock, Osmo boot polish, Australian Honey and jam which he tried manufacturing in Trinidad. All these ventures were as unsuccessful as his television system.

Credit: Prof Brian Winston University of Westminster.

John Heys (G3BDQ)

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