Television has annihilated distance in today's world, but the passage of time still creates a yawning gulf. The quiet Scottish town of Helensburgh where my father grew up 100 years ago, has not changed very much outwardly. What has changed is the social atmosphere. Life in the Victorian era was restricted and politically incorrect by today's western standards. My grandfather was a Church of Scotland minister and religion ruled firmly in the household. John Logie Baird got his inventive inspiration from reading the newly published stories of H.G. Wells. Wells made it seem that anything was possible: travel to the moon, invisibility... so why not television?
After my father's death in 1946, the pattern of my life followed his early life in an uncanny sort of way. In 1947 the family moved from the South of England to the old home in Helensburgh, which at that time belonged to my Aunt Annie Baird. The house had hardly changed since my father grew up there, and his old H.G.Wells books were still on the bookshelves. I attended his old school in the town and later the Royal Technical College in Glasgow where he had been a student 50 years earlier. But from then on, my career took a less exciting and more settled course than my father's. I made a gradual academic progress to the position as a professor of chemical engineering, which I have held for 33 years in Canada.
I like to think that I inherited a spark or two of my father's creativity, even though my research has focussed more on improving existing processes than "inventing" new ones. It is fascinating to think back to those strange dramatic years at the beginning of the 20th century, when the seeds for television were being sown. To some extent my father's career was like one of H.G.Wells' stories, a case where life follows art. But to quote another British author, Daphne du Maurier, "We cannot go back in time, that much is certain." Today, research is generously supported by government grants and tax deductions, but it has become more bureaucratic. Perhaps the era of the independent inventor is over. The opportunities (and the rewards) for a bright young person seem to lie more in the world of business and finance, or the media, than in science and engineering.
But there will always be a few technological mavericks who are obsessed with an idea which sounds so crazy that the granting agencies turn it down flat. Granting agencies are always happy to turn down a proposal and I am sure that if they had existed in 1880 they would have turned down the crazy idea of driving a vehicle along the highway by exploding a highly inflammable liquid in a row of metal cylinders. Somehow in this world of the bottom line, inventive eccentrics must be not only tolerated but encouraged. My father was of this type and he gathered about him a small group of faithful helpers and even a few financial supporters. He had an uphill battle but his achievements prodded the big radio companies to start up their own television research, and the rest is history. You will find some of it on this web site.
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