John Logie Baird is recognised as Britain's television pioneer; he was born and raised in Scotland, and most of his television work was done in the London area. Yet if events had turned out differently, he might have become a naturalized American like another Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell.
Baird's one and only visit to the USA took place in late 1931. The company that had been formed around Baird, Television Limited, had been pushing hard to get television broadcasting started in Britain, but the BBC was hesitant about the new medium. There was a strong case for developing television in the more open regime of the USA where many experimental television stations were already broadcasting in different cities. So Baird, and the company secretary Walter Knight, sailed into New York on the Aquitania in September 1931. By a strange coincidence, Baird had served as an engineering apprentice twenty years earlier at the Clydeside yard where the Aquitania was being built.
Baird was well known in the USA. His first public demonstration of television in January 1926, and his historic transmission of television across the Atlantic in February 1928, had captured the public imagination. As late as 1931, television techniques were still largely mechanical and Baird's most recent success was to televise the Derby from Epsom—the pictures successfully received over the BBC by hundreds of "lookers-in".
Much to Baird's embarrassment, he and Mr. Knight were greeted at the pier in New York by a pipe band in full highland regalia. They evaded this VIP reception and quietly went off for a meeting with Mayor Jimmy Walker, before continuing to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. But even here, Baird's troubles were not over because he was besieged by shouting and partially inebriated businessmen trying to make "deals". His autobiography "Sermons, Soap and Television" described the scene vividly and amusingly.
Donald Flamm (neither shouting nor inebriated) was the only person with whom Baird was able to conclude a firm "deal". Flamm was the owner of radio station WMCA in New York City; he and Baird drew up a proposal for a jointly operated television station employing the latest technology. This was subject to obtaining a license from the Federal Radio Commission in Washington. During the interval while the paperwork was processed, Flamm arranged a radio broadcast by Baird on Sunday October 18. The broadcast took place from what was then the WMCA building; that building is used today for the production of David Letterman's national nightly TV talk show! The script of Baird's 1931 broadcast is still in existence and part of it is quoted below.
"... the whole atmosphere of New York is very different from that of Europe. It is an atmosphere of "go ahead" vigor, welcoming of novelty and enterprise. The people here are, to use a New York expression, "all out for progress", whereas in Europe we are inclined to look with distrust and suspicion on anything new. ...As an example of this, the plans of this well known station from which I am speaking, to go ahead immediately with an up-to-date broadcasting program, and to use all means in their power to further the science, and bring its benefits as quickly as possible to the public at large, are extremely encouraging.
"Our company is installing the necessary television transmitting apparatus and we hope in a very short time to be sending out from this station television programs similar to those we are now sending out in London, but with this difference, that through WMCA we will have a much longer time available. You are aware that this station has a sole concession for broadcasting the Madison Square boxing matches and it is hoped in a very short time to add to the word descriptions of the fights by transmitting scenes and the actual fight itself. In addition, arrangements have been made for broadcasting outstanding theatrical events such as the opening nights of Broadway productions. It is proposed to do this with apparatus similar to that being used by us abroad, for broadcasting daylight scenes such as the British Derby classic made in June last.
...Throughout the world the highest scientific thought is being devoted to television. Vast strides have been made and will be made in this new art. I myself look forward to seeing at no distant day, television theatres supersede the talkies, and the home television become as common as the home radio is today."
For several months before his trip to the US, Baird had been seeing an attractive young lady called Margaret Albu. She was an up-and-coming concert pianist from South Africa, and she had been among the stream of performers who had passed through the Baird television studios. The attraction was an unlikely one, given the 19-year difference in ages, and the cultural gap between a dedicated inventor and a dedicated musician. Shortly after the WMCA broadcast, Baird contracted the flu and became rather sorry for himself. Donald Flamm said to him, "why not ask your girlfriend to come over to the States?" Baird did more than that, he proposed marriage over the phone and was accepted! So Margaret came over to New York and they were married before judge Murray Hearn on November 13 1931. The marriage and the reception took place at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, a well-known resort area just a few miles from Manhattan. A group photograph of the occasion shows John and Margaret Baird among a large party of business people --but not a single relative from either side of the family! Nevertheless it was a happy marriage and it lasted until Baird's death 15 years later.
Soon after the wedding, Baird and his new wife and Donald Flamm travelled to Washington to attend the Federal Radio Commission hearings. These lasted 2 days and produced 148 pages of transcript, including Baird's detailed answers to questioning on how he came to develop television. Baird gave a commitment that if the agreement with WMCA was approved, he would spend 6 months of each year in the USA Privately in conversation with Donald Flamm, Baird said that if things went well he would spend considerably more than 6 months per year in the USA
The examiner was a young man called Ralph L. Walker. He wrote a glowing report to the Commission and recommended that a construction permit should be granted. All seemed well, and John and Margaret Baird sailed back to England. Three months later, the Commission decided against the application. Objections had been filed by Radio Pictures Inc. (station W2XR) of Long Island City that they could do the research just as well. A strong point in the commission's report was that Baird's company was a foreign organization and as such it should not be allowed to play any part in US broadcasting! Donald Flamm has observed the irony of this decision, compared to the situation today; communications are global and for example the Australian Rupert Murdoch can hold a dominant position in the US media, and nobody gives it a second thought.
The news of the F.R.C. rejection arrived soon after Baird's return to England. Back in London, he was faced with more challenges because during his absence Television Ltd. had changed hands. The new owner and the board of directors were critical of the fruitless expense of the US trip and particularly the fact that Baird had got married "on company time." Baird agreed to pay half the travel expenses out of his own pocket, but the bad feeling remained.
So ended John Logie Baird's visit to the USA It is interesting to speculate on how Baird's fortunes might have been different if the Federal Radio Commission had not vetoed the joint venture with WMCA. He might then have made the move to the USA and his career might have paralleled that of Alexander Graham Bell, who migrated from Scotland and became one of the icons of American technical history. Certainly, Baird's health problems with the cold damp British climate would have disappeared quickly in the warm air of California or Florida.
But as it was, he stayed on in Britain. When war broke out in 1939, Donald Flamm and Sydney Moseley tried to persuade Baird to move, with his family, to the USA Baird said it would be "too much of an upheaval". Through the war years he continued to work on electronic colour television, despite shortages of money and staff. I can remember seeing high-definition colour TV in 1944. But during World War II there were more important things for the public interest, and Baird's work went largely unnoticed. Nevertheless the Baird patents of the 1940s were at the leading edge of the colour television technology. Baird's health was gradually weakened by the difficult wartime conditions and he died in 1946 at the early age of 57. But for the arbitrary and chauvinistic decision of the Federal Radio Commission in 1931, Baird's life and the history of television could have been very different!
Acknowledgment—I am very grateful to the late Mr. Donald Flamm (Overseas Fellow, R.T.S.) for his encouragement and help in the writing of this article.
This article was first published in the Royal Television Society Newsletter by Malcolm Baird who is an Honorary Member of the Royal Television Society and the son of the British TV pioneer, John Logie Baird.
Copyright 1996, The Royal Television Society.
Copyright 1996-2021, Dr. Malcolm H. I. Baird.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a very great pleasure and privilege to address you by the invitation of Station WMCA, which has asked me to give a short talk on my impressions of New York, and to say a few words about my work on television.
Before doing so, however, may I pause for this very brief moment to say that in the death early this morning of Thomas A. Edison the world at large lost a great benefactor and one of the greatest pioneers of electrical science. Almost every branch of scientific research was enriched by his contributions. In many parts of the world Mr. Edison was considered the greatest living American. I know that already Great Britain is mourning with you the passing of a magnificent personality and a master mind of modern science.
Well, my first impression of New York was associated with the bagpipes, for the United Scottish Clans very kindly arranged a reception for me on the pier, with a complete pipe band and a police escort. On landing from the boat we drove through the streets of New York to the hotel. I was positively thrilled by the overpowering magnitude of the buildings. In Europe a ten-story building is considered exceptionally high, in fact, a skyscraper, whereas in New York there do not appear to be any buildings less than twenty or thirty storeys, and one building I have been in runs up to a hundred and two stories.
Apart from the buildings, the whole atmosphere of New York is very different from that of Europe. It is an atmosphere of go-ahead vigour, welcoming novelty and enterprise. The people here are all out for progress, whereas in Europe we are inclined to look with distrust and suspicion on anything new. In the last few days I have had an opportunity to look into the position of television in this side of the Atlantic, and I am truly amazed at the immense amount of public interest and the remarkably good work which has been done. This new branch of science is having a warm welcome, and every encouragement is being given to it, not only by the public but by the broadcasting authorities throughout the country, in strong contrast to the lack of interest and, in some cases, obstructionist attitude of the broadcasting authorities of Europe.
As an example of the acceptance of television in this country, the plans of this well-known station from which I am speaking to go ahead immediately with an up-to-date broadcasting television programme, and to use all means in their power to further the science and bring its benefits as quickly as possible to the public at large, are extremely encouraging.
Our Company is installing the necessary television transmitting apparatus, and we hope, in a very short time, to be sending out from this station regular television programmes similar to those which we are now sending out in London, but with this difference, that through WMCA we shall have a much longer time available. You are no doubt aware that this station has a sole concession for broadcasting Madison Square boxing matches, and it is hoped in a very short time to add to the word description of the fight by transmitting scenes of the actual fight itself. In addition, arrangements are being made for broadcasting outstanding theatrical events, such as opening nights of Broadway productions. This will be done with apparatus similar to that which are using in England for broadcasting scenes such as the Derby horse-race as we did in June last.
I know you are all very much interested in what is being done in Europe in television, and perhaps you would like to hear some of my own early personal experiences.
In 1925 television was regarded as something of a myth. No true television had ever been shown—only crude shadows. At that time I was working very intensively in a small attic laboratory in the Soho district of London. Things were very black; my cash resources were almost exhausted, and as, day after day, success seemed as far away as ever, I began to wonder if general opinion was not, after all, correct, and television was in truth a myth. But one day, it was in fact the fifth Friday in October 1925, I experienced the one great thrill which research work has brought me. The dummy's head which I used for experimental purposes suddenly showed up on the screen, not as a mere smudge of black and white, but as a real image with details and with gradations of light and shade. I was vastly excited and ran downstairs to obtain a living object. The first person to appear was the office boy from the floor below, a youth named William Taynton, and he, rather reluctantly, consented to submit himself to the experiment. I placed him before the transmitter and went into the next room to see what the screen would show. The screen was entirely blank, and no effort of tuning would produce any result. Puzzled, and very disappointed, I went back to the transmitter, and there the cause of the failure became at once evident. The boy, scared by the intense white light had backed away from the transmitter. In the excitement of the moment I gave him half a crown (then worth 60 cents), and this time he kept his head in the right position. Going again into the next room, I saw his head on the screen quite clearly. It is curious to consider that the first person in the world to be seen by television should have required a bribe to accept that distinction.
From this moment I knew that success was assured, and on January 27th, 1926, I invited the Royal Institution, which, as you probably know, is one of the leading scientific bodies of the world, to a demonstration. Over forty leading scientists turned up, and the little laboratory and the stairs leading to it were packed with some of the most distinguished scientists of Europe. The demonstration was a great success, and excited immense interest, not only in the world of science but among the general public, as it was given considerable publicity in the Press.
From then on the cash shortage ceased, and I was able to make apparatus out of more substantial and suitable materials than soap boxes, biscuit tins, etc. The first transmitted apparatus, for example, had a disc made of cardboard, and the lamp which supplied the illumination was a motor-cycle bulb enclosed in a perforated biscuit tin. The subject for all these preliminary tests was a dilapidated ventriloquist's dummy, and the whole of this conglomeration now rests in the Science Museum in London.
In these preliminary experiments very bright lights were used, and while listening to the complaints of the sitters who were dazzled and blinded by the brilliant illumination, the idea occurred to me to use invisible rays instead of light. This proved by no means an easy matter. I first of all tried the ultra-violet light, and several of the staff nearly lost their eyesight due to the blinding effect of the rays. The next effort was to use the rays at the other end of the spectrum—the so-called infra-red rays, and after some trouble the experiment met with success, and I was able, towards the end of 1926, to demonstrate again to the Royal Institution the transmission of a person sitting in total darkness. This phenomenon I christened "Noctovision" or "seeing in the dark," and it was subsequently shown at the British Association of Science when people sitting in total darkness in Leeds were transmitted by telephone line to London, approximately two hundred miles distant.
An interesting little episode occurred in connection with the first experiments of broadcasting by noctovision. One of the young lady members of our staff was used as a subject. During the noctovision tests, I was looking in at a check receiver and saw the young lady quite clearly moving her head this way and then, and then I was greatly surprised to see the head of one of the engineers also suddenly appear on the screen. He bent forward and kissed the young lady. I mentioned the matter the next day and she indignantly denied it, but the engineer admitted that the temptation of the dark room and the good-looking young lady had been too much for him.
The next development of consequence was the transmission of television images across the Atlantic on February 8th and 9th, 1928. On February 9th, 1928, using a short-wave station situated at Coulsdon, a suburb of London, images were successfully transmitted to Hartsdale, a suburb of New York. This was followed almost immediately by the transmission to the Berengaria in mid-ocean, where the chief wireless operator of the ship was able to see the image of his fiancée in Long Acre, London.
Television is now broadcast regularly through the British Broadcasting Corporation, and our programmes include such things as small plays, boxing matches, and ju-jitsu demonstrations, and last June we broadcast the finish of the great British horse-race, the Derby, which takes place on the Epsom Downs race-course about twenty miles from London. We had a portable daylight transmitted placed opposite the winning post. From there television images were sent by telephone lines to the British Broadcasting Corporation wireless transmitter, and broadcast over the British Isles, so that owners of "Televisors" were able, while seated in their homes, to look in and watch the horses flash past the winning-post. This created an immense amount of interest, and we received many appreciative letters.
I will conclude now by saying that television is only in its infancy and big developments are pending. The television images which have been seen by the general public are no criterion of what has been achieved in the laboratories. Our work now is to simplify and cheapen our present laboratory apparatus, so that it can be made available to the man in the street. The problem of television is solved. What remains to be done is entirely a matter of technical and commercial development.
Throughout the world the highest scientific thought is being devoted to television. Vast strides have been made, and will be made, in this new art. I myself look forward to seeing, in the not far distant future, television theatres supersede the talkies, and the home "Televisor" become as common as the home radio is to-day.