H.G. Wells and J.L. Baird

by Malcolm Baird, January 2021

This year the Royal Mint has issued coins to mark the 75th anniversaries of the deaths of two highly creative British figures, one in literature and the other in science and technology. A 2-pound coin will recognise the novelist H.G. Wells (1866-1946), one of the earliest writers of science fiction a 50 pence coin will recognise John Logie Baird (1888-1946) and his pioneering work on television. The idea of television provides a connection between Wells the writer and Baird the inventor.

In Wells' novel The Sleeper Awakes (1899) the leading character, Graham, falls into a deep trance from which he awakes two centuries later without having aged in any way. This passage gives an uncannily accurate description of a video player, although lacking technical details:

[Graham] puzzled over this peculiar cylinder for some time and replaced it. Then he turned to the square apparatus and examined that. He opened a sort of lid and found one of the double cylinders within, and on the upper edge a little stud like the stud of an electric bell. He pressed this and a rapid clicking began and ceased. He became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face. He suddenly realised what this might be, and stepped back to regard it. On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in clear small voices.

As a boy growing up in Scotland, John Logie Baird was an avid reader of Wells and he had this to say when he wrote his memoirs in 1941:

I read a great deal of everything and anything and it is interesting to consider what out of all this I have retained. ...One popular author, however, soars far above all others and takes his place among the classics. In my boyhood and youth he was a demi-god, the reading of any new book by him I regarded as a feast: this was H.G. Wells, and today he still occupies a high place although he is no longer a demi-god. I have met him in the flesh and not many can submit to this ordeal and remain gods, certainly not H.G. Wells, that pleasant stubby little man with the squeaky voice. Nonetheless of the popular authors of my youth he is the only one who survives and actually takes his place among the classics.

Although there is no firm evidence that Baird was inspired by The Sleeper Awakes, it seems probable. It is known that he acquired a book by the German physicist Ernst Ruhmer on the photoelectric applications of the metal selenium. He found that the electric signals obtainable from selenium were extremely weak, but the idea of television stayed at the back of his mind until the 1920s by which time amplifiers were available. After three years of intense research, he demonstrated television to members of the Royal Institution on 26 January 1926.

Baird and Wells met for the first and only time in October 1931 onboard the Aquitania, en route to New York. Rather disappointingly, the two men found little to talk about. A later passage from Baird's memoirs ends this story:

Mr. Wells proved to be a substantially built man of medium height with a cap pulled over his eyes, utterly void of any affectation or any effort to impress. A great anticlimax it seemed after the magnificent Sir Oliver Lodge and other overpowering press personalities. No imposing facade here, only a poor vulgar creature like myself. We had a short chat about youth camps. I said these organisations appear to ignore sex. 'Oh well' he said, 'every Jack has his Jill', and that is all I remember of the conversation with my demigod.