John Logie-Baird by Mike Wade (M0EDU)

John Logie Baird invented television – BUT did you know that after inventing his basic television system in 1924 in Hastings he went on to prove the practicality of providing wide national coverage for television in 1925? This was long before the expense could be afforded of installing special wide-band terrestrial transmitters for high definition TV across the country many years later?

He did this by improving his original 30-line television standard specifically because its picture bandwidth could be transmitted on all the original broadcast sound transmitters coming into use in many countries. He demonstrated its quality to the public at Selfridges in London in April 1925 while Radio Amateurs from many countries were simultaneously setting up the International Amateur Radio Union in Paris; enabling Amateur Radio to be enacted into international law in Washington in 1927.

Despite enormous official resistance to his idea, Baird persisted and succeeded in using his television standard on intercontinental short-wave radio after that had been shown to be practical and promoted by Radio Amateurs also against official resistance. He did this in January 1928 by using an amateur transmitter located at Ben Clapp’s house in Coulsden in Surrey with pictures being confirmed as received in New York by a reporter from the New York Times.

This international publicity eventually started to break down the resistance and led to enquiries from the German government who adopted the 30 line system in a horizontal format, while the BBC started using Baird’s vertical 30 line format for regular public television transmissions from 1929. The BBC transmissions were received in Europe and used for major large screen television demonstrations in cinemas and theatres as well as for direct television reception by the public across the UK.

The 30-line standard promoted by Baird and adopted by the UK and Germany enabled duel standard receivers for the UK vertical and German horizontal line formats to be made and used in Europe, thus introducing true international television using standard broadcast sound transmissions.

Longer Term Benefits Not Sustained

The longer-term benefits of this breakthrough in international communication and understanding via broadcasting for the public were never expanded and secured on a permanent basis. This was because a preference for higher definition television was taken up by governments, who when they did so, removed support for the international television standard being used for broadcasting.

They replaced it with purely national television systems, which because they required special VHF wide-band transmitters for the higher definition, gave very limited coverage which was only available to a small number of people in each country compared to those receiving normal medium wave broadcasts for the international service.

(This drop in transmitter range and coverage when the transmitter broadcast frequency band is raised was experienced again in the UK in the 1970s when colour television was introduced on UHF. Those on the South Coast who had been receiving black and white TV from the VHF transmitter at Crystal Palace in London, could not be provided with the same service on UHF, from London, so it had to come from new more locally sited transmitters.)

Consequences of Decision Making

As initial international television transmissions were already taking place in Europe by 1929 from the UK and Germany using Baird’s 30 line standard, it is worth discussing whether it was good decision making by both countries to eventually discontinue this international standard. By doing this it could be said that they were cutting off the growth of international communication and understanding at a time when it would soon become increasingly necessary as a foundation to improve collaboration and prevent the failure of international diplomacy which took place later.

What was Learned from Baird’s Approach to Television?

Baird realised the importance of keeping the cost down of any new broadcast medium, which he was able to do with his television system, by enabling people to use their existing broadcast radio receivers to connect the video signal output to his television disk display unit to view the picture.

Because the sound came over a separate transmitter that could also use another existing radio set, thus confining the new expense to the display unit only. Even access to these was reduced in price as they were also made available as kits through newspapers for building by those interested.

Certain manufacturers realised that Baird’s approach was correct and built further on it by using the mirror drum system that Baird had also developed. They manufactured a considerable number of 6-inch screen compact television sets, which gave an improved picture over that available from a traditional disk receiver which was not very large.
The importance of building up a system via a module approach to keep costs down was very successfully repeated when computers were first being introduced to the public in the 1980s.

The Sinclair ZX80 was first made available as a kit for those interested in electronics and then the following version, the ZX81 was made available ready constructed. Both versions used existing television sets as display units and audio bandwidth cassette recorders that people already owned, for memory storage. This made computing in a basic form accessible to many millions more people than those who first experienced seeing and using computers at work.

In addition, those computers came with comprehensive manuals explaining the use of the Basic computer language. Basic had enough similarity with normal written instructions for an understanding to be developed of its operation, so leading to further interest in computing and the wide range of uses to which it could be put.

The following version – the Sinclair Spectrum – had a useful facility that was not at first obvious from its documentation. Because its power supply regulation was in the computer, the mains power supply unit with its output marked as 9 volts could be replaced with a standard 12 volt car battery. This meant that when used with a portable 12 volt television the whole computing system became independent of mains power and could be used anywhere in the world.

This obviously greatly increased international access to computing, in the same way that Baird’s system had done for television, even into developing countries where there was often no ready access to mains electricity. It made the Spectrum a favourite computer for use by Radio Amateurs, as its power was sufficient for it to decode many different communication modes as well as transmit them.


Up to this point increased understanding could be obtained by realising how to connect different units together as well as following the operation of how the software worked to provide the communication or other activity being pursued.

Inevitably there were also many people who had no interest in how computers worked but still wanted to benefit from the increased work output possible by using their facilities for such activities as word processing.

They soon bought the Amstrad PCW8256 when that became available, as that was provided with a disk drive, printer and its own display unit with an improved display over a television for 80 characters per line.

The handbook for the PCW8256 was in two parts, one with the computing instructions about the software and the other with the user instructions for the word-processor, which was the part that most people used as they were not interested in how it worked.

This process of becoming users accelerated and began to leave a large gap in our understanding of how much of what we use every day actually works, so leaving us much less able to discuss or understand and debate about major decisions that need to be made in society.

Mike Wade (M0EDU) May 2007.

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