Books Available Beyond the Year 2000 - Critique
“John Logie Baird - a life” by Antony
Kamm and Malcolm Baird published by the National Museums of Scotland Publishing
465 pages illustrated.
Having read at least three biographies of Baird plus numerous articles it was with mixed feelings that I sat down to read the latest volume – 478 pages including prelims – “John Logie Baird - a life”. This, however, is a very different book from all the others. Gone are the myths and apocryphal stories (or rather when included they are described as such) and in their place is a meticulously researched story based on first hand interviews and quoting many new documentary sources, some of which have only recently become available. At long last we have a book that sounds and feels like the truth about the man who was the first in the world to demonstrate working television.
The first half of the book deals with JLB’s childhood and early adult life. The story of his early experiments to produce television in Hastings and elsewhere culminating in his demonstration to the Royal Society in Soho, London on 26 January 1926, is fairly well known, to many people. However even here there is added information gleaned from letters to and from his first financial backer William Day. Then follows a section on the starting up of Baird Television Ltd., the setting up of Fernseh AG in Germany; the struggles with the BBC for the use of transmitting facilities and his exclusion from using the airwaves in the USA. (The application was passed by the examiner after a two day hearing but turned down by the Federal Radio Commission on appeal by Radio Pictures on the grounds that Baird Television was a foreign company). After this most people believe that Baird carried on with mechanical television when everyone else had switched to the cathode ray tube and was defeated in a competition with EMI-Marconi in 1936 at the BBC and finally faded away until he died in 1946.
This book tells a very different story and this is where it really gets interesting. In 1933, in a boardroom coup, he was effectively ousted from the company he set up. All the running and direction of the company was taken out of his hands – though for public relations purposes he kept the title of managing director. The terms of deal between the company and Baird were that Baird would operate independently of the company, with his own private laboratory, and with technical staff supplied by the company, one in 1933 rising to six in 1936. He was also able to call on company services, such as workshop facilities, stores and the assistance of the various research departments, though it appears that he preferred largely to be self-sufficient. And it was under these conditions that he conducted his successful research in cinema television and also laid the foundations of his research into colour television. He set up his own private research laboratory as a separate entity at the home he bought at 3 Crescent Wood Road, London specifically for this end. Here at last, freed from all management responsibilities, Baird proceeded to push the frontiers of television far beyond anyone else in the world.
Throughout the 1930s up to the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939, he developed cinema television first to 180 lines mechanically and then progressively to ever greater levels of technology, so that finally on the 23 February 1939, an audience at the Marble Arch Pavilion saw the British light-heavyweight boxing championship live on a screen 15 feet by 12. This was an all electronic system using an extremely powerful tube known as a ‘teapot tube’ which operated on 40,000 volts. The show was a sell-out, with people standing along the walls of auditorium and police had to be called to control the crowds trying to get in. Baird was also the first person to demonstrate colour television incorporating a cathode ray tube in conjunction with a mechanical scanning device in July 1939.
Almost immediately after war was declared in September 1939, Baird Television Limited was put into liquidation. JLB’s shares in the company he founded were worth nothing. He had no job, no income and no war work but he had a private laboratory, a house and £15,000 in the bank. Anthony Kamm and Malcolm Baird then recount in detail how, while sending his family off to Cornwall for safety, Baird then committed himself to full time research on colour television at his own expense. With first three, then two assistants whose wages he paid, he pushed the development of colour television forward in progressive stages.
By late 1940 he had substituted electronic scanning at six hundred lines for the previous mechanical methods of transmission. In 1941 he demonstrated stereoscopic colour television with cathode ray tubes and colour wheels. Everything was made ‘on site’ including the cathode ray tubes. By 1943 his capital had dropped to £4,500 and he described his financial situation “like watching himself bleed to death” but he carried on. In August 1944 he gave a press demonstration of the first all-electronic colour television using a single cathode ray tube which he called the “Telechrome” tube. The visitors, some of whom were used as subjects, were seen on the receiver which had a definition of 600 lines. It was an extraordinary achievement in a lifetime’s work devoted to television research and would have been major world news if the war hadn’t been ongoing. David Sarnoff of RCA boasted in 1954, that RCA, a huge multi-national company, had spent $75 million to develop colour television and employed hundreds of research scientists in the process. The contrast to John Logie Baird, who developed it ten years earlier for less than $20,000, paid out of his own pocket, with two employed assistants, is quite astounding. If that isn’t a demonstration of genius then I do not understand the term. (RCA referred to the Telechrome and Baird’s patents as prior art in their patent application).
Throughout the course of this biography there emerges a very human picture of the man behind the name together with a veritable case study of an inventor at work. Here is a man genuinely obsessed with the idea of television from his youth, living and breathing his subject. Never without a notebook to hand, always on the phone talking to scientists, businessmen and journalists for ever promoting the idea of television and pushing at the edge of existing technology and then a bit more. He emerges as a man with many faults but who cared little for personal wealth or luxury, whose guiding principles were formed from his upbringing in the church manse with socialist leanings. A man of unimpeachable integrity but with a cynical sense of humour, introverted, always overworking, with hundreds of acquaintances but very few close friends outside his immediate family. But above all here is a man of iron determination who succeeded despite being dogged by ill health throughout his adult life and always suffering from cold, which is why almost every photo of JLB looks as if it was taken on a cold winter’s day as he’s invariably dressed up to the nines. He also wore his hair long for warmth. He was always modest, which is perhaps just as well, since he was given no official recognition or honour of any kind in his life. His premature death at the age of fifty-seven undoubtedly robbed him of the recognition which was his due and political pressures and business interests after the war succeeded in sidelining him and making him out to be an irrelevant anachronism. Finally at last, more than fifty years after his death, his brilliance is at last being recognised. A recent poll found that John Logie Baird was the second most famous Scot in the world. In the future when people wish to look up the facts of his life and achievements I believe it will be to this remarkable book that they will turn first.
Michael Bennett-Levy 26 September 2002