JAM, SOCKS AND TELEVISION: THE JOHN LOGIE BAIRD STORY





Notes for opening speech by Professor Malcolm Baird at the University of Strathclyde exhibition on television and JLB, 24 February 1990.



I am happy to be here in Glasgow to open the Exhibition on my father's work. In the 1950s I attended classes in Applied Chemistry at the Royal Technical College and it is nice to be back. Yesterday evening I had a chance to preview the Exhibition, and I wish to congratulate the University of Strathclyde for their excellent work in assembling and preparing the exhibits. The Exhibition was made possible by the external sponsor, British Telecom. This company is the direct descendant of the telephone and telecommunications branch of the Post Office, which gave my father so much useful support in the early days of television.

Several of today's guests are long-time associates of my father and old friends of the Baird family. I am delighted to see Mr. Ben Clapp and Mr. Ray Herbert in the audience. My mother sends her regrets that she cannot be here she is wintering in a warmer climate. Another invited guest who has had to decline is my father's business associate in the U.S.A. in the early 1930s, Mr. Donald Flamm. He sends greetings and best wishes from Florida.

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"Mr.Watson, come here please I want you."

These simple words were spoken in Boston in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell into a primitive apparatus called the telephone. They ushered in the modern era of oral communications. Fifty years later, John Logie Baird had to bribe a terrified London office boy with half a crown to stand in front of an equally primitive apparatus - and the modern age of visual communications began.

For centuries, printing was the dominant communications technology. Its influence reached a peak in the late Victorian era, with the growth of literacy and little competition as yet from other media. My aunt's diaries from 90 years ago show that one of the highlights of family routine in Helensburgh was the weekly arrival of the Strand Magazine, with the latest instalment of Sherlock Holmes.

My father was born into this era, in 1888. He was at an impressionable age just as Bell's discovery of the telephone began to have its impact, and as H.G.Wells's great scientific novels appeared. The main theme of the Time Machine, the Invisible Man and Wells's other stories was that scientific discovery was within the reach of anyone. It was not an incomprehensible sort of mumbo-jumbo requiring higher mathematics and costly equipment. This idea, simplistic as it was, inspired a generation of young people in the early years of this century.

I hope that this exhibition too can act as an inspiration to students. Of course it would be naive to expect anyone to make a great discovery just by tinkering in his garage the student of science must have a grounding in his subject, he must be able to "speak the language". My father got his grounding at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, the predecessor of the University of Strathclyde. What he learned then was, in his own words, "of immense value and has stayed with me for the rest of my life".

Background knowledge in itself does not lead to new discoveries. The prime need is creativity, and being able to make progress with techniques and equipment that are available. The television industry started in the 1920s from primitive beginnings. The technical challenges then were to find more sensitive photocells, to synchronize the rotating discs, and not least, to prevent them from flying apart at high speed. In the 1930s, Baird's research moved to electronic television and his notes are concerned largely with materials for coating cathode ray tubes particularly for colour television. He continued to learn and create until the end of his life in 1946.

How is Baird's work of half a century ago relevant to life today? The obvious answer lies in the detailed technical evidence which has been collected here by Ms.Laura Hamilton and Dr.Peter Waddell and their colleagues. John Logie Baird's work can be traced back in the history of many of the modern branches of communications technology not only television but radar, infra-red imaging, fibre optics and telefax.

Although Baird worked for years on the technical aspects of television, he was also aware of the enormous social and political effects that it would have in the future. He saw television as a means towards world peace he predicted that better communications among peoples, through television, would lead to better international understanding. With 60 years hindsight on that prophecy, we can say that it is coming true, although not quite in the way my father anticipated. Communications satellites and lightweight cameras allow direct news transmission from "trouble spots" to viewers all over the world. It is no longer so easy for a repressive government to draw a curtain, whether of iron or bamboo or any other material, over its activities. Marshall McLuhan has truly said that the wars of the future will be fought not so much with weapons as with images.

Baird spent much time and effort trying to convince government and industry of the value of what he was doing. Despite prejudice and apathy from many quarters, he persevered, and this is still the path that must be followed by any technical innovator. Science and successful research are not enough, the innovator must act as a salesperson, knocking on doors to raise money or sell ideas. The techniques for promoting television or fax or computers are basically the same as for selling jam or patent undersocks find the need, and convince the customer that you can meet that need. The successful innovator must patiently learn the language of business, and the administrative protocol of government.

Today, both in Britain and in North America, a sort of malaise seems to be afflicting engineering and the physical sciences. Every cancellation of a project, every announced cutback in scientific research or education, discourages a few more bright teenagers from entering science and engineering. Yet it is desperately important for any advanced industrial country to attract its best young people into science and engineering. They are needed for research and development, working at the cutting edge of their specialty but it is equally important that people entering management or administration or politics should have some background of scientific understanding or engineering practicality. So I hope that the Exhibition will be not only a tribute to my father's work, but an inspiration to schoolchildren and students. There is nothing to beat the creative excitement of a new discovery, or the sense of achievement in harmonizing the discovery with the laws of science and eventually developing a new product or process. I firmly believe that science and engineering are parts of modern culture they tend to be overlooked because of a lack of understanding. This Exhibition can help to overcome that lack. It is therefore appropriate that the Exhibition is held during Glasgow's year as the European City of Culture. I have great pleasure in declaring the Exhibition open.