Jan Forman (1913–1987): One of Baird's Bright Boys

by Malcolm Baird

Eighty years ago, in 1936, Baird Television Ltd. (BTL) was the company behind the unsuccessful bid for the world's first high definition television system. After a few weeks of operating its television service on a trial basis with two different systems, the BBC adopted the all-electronic system of Marconi-EMI. This has led to an incorrect stereotype of Baird as being stubbornly committed to mechanical television. Back in 2002 Antony Kamm and I tried to set the record straight [1] and more recently Douglas Brown has written in detail about the activities of BTL and Baird himself in the area of electronic television [2].

BTL began to change over from primarily mechanical technology to electronic technology in 1932. The company, which had been in financial trouble, was taken over by Gaumont British Pictures. Captain A.G.D. West was brought in as technical director he had previously worked at E.M.I. and had spent several months visiting the RCA research laboratories where Vladimir Zworykin had been developing electronic television. Upon arrival at BTL, West set about a programme of hiring young university physicists whom I have christened "Baird’s Bright Boys". By the mid 1930s the company had about 300 total staff and a dozen specialized research groups [2].

Some of the Bright Boys came from British universities and some had fled to Britain from troubled countries in continental Europe. Between 1932 and 1939, they took out over 300 patents [2]. As far as we know, they were all boys – no girls! Their patents were distinct from those taken out by J.L. Baird himself who was working mainly on large screen television and colour television.

One of BTL's most notable recruits was Dr. Alfred Sommer (whose autobiographical notes are reviewed on this website), another was Gilbert Tomes and another was Jan Forman. The technical details of Forman's work are currently being evaluated by Dr. Peter Waddell and Dr. Douglas Brown in a specialized publication [3], but I thought that Forman's life story would also be of interest to general readers of the Baird website.

Rudolf Jan Hamilton Forman (usually known as Jan Forman) was born in London on 16 January 1913 to Josef Karel Forman, a Czechoslovak political activist, and Lady Violet Hamilton, an English aristocrat distantly related to Winston Churchill. The couple had married on 25 March 1912 and on 10 April they embarked at Southampton as first class passengers on the Titanic [4]. They left the ship at Cherbourg and this was indeed fortunate for them, because a few days later the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank with the loss of over 1500 lives. In 1916, Josef Forman was put in charge of the Czech Press Bureau in London and in 1917 he was briefly interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. He brought an action of habeas corpus to secure his release [5].

As Jan Forman grew up, he became interested in the new field of electronics and in 1929 he entered the physics department at King's College, University of London, at the rather early age of 16. Unfortunately he failed the first year examinations and he left the university in 1931 without obtaining a degree [6]. His father Josef had moved to the USA after divorcing his mother in 1924. After leaving the University of London, Jan crossed to America and for a short time he worked with the US television pioneer Philo Farnsworth at his laboratory in Philadelphia. However he left after an almost fatal electrical accident which was blamed on him [7].

Undaunted, Jan returned to England where in December 1934 he joined the research laboratory of BTL under its technical director, Captain West. Forman is listed in the company's microwave department [2] and he worked on the magnetron, a device capable of producing microwaves (centimetric waves) reliably at relatively high power. Microwaves were important to television as they provided a means of relaying high definition pictures over short distances from outside cameras, for example at sporting or royal events. The only alternative was a coaxial cable buried underground this was more reliable although somewhat inflexible and expensive. It later proved that microwave technology was important in radar because it could provide high resolution scanned images and it did not require large transmitter aerials.

While he was with BTL, Forman took out three patents relating to microwaves [2] and he is also known to have attended a meeting with Robert Watson-Watt in 1937 [3]. In late 1937 he was temporarily attached to the Bendix Corporation in the USA. By 1940, Forman had joined Pye of Cambridge and during his time there he took out no fewer than 15 patents. His work on proximity fuzes was said to be a major contribution to the war effort [8]. His activities were shrouded in secrecy, to the extent that his address as given in his patents as the sub-post office at 23 Trinity Street. This postal address was even used in the press notice of his first marriage, to Jean Brocklebank in 1942 [9]. He and Jean had a daughter (Virginia, b.1943), but a few years later the couple separated. While in Cambridge, Forman took part in some academic research on microwaves at the university [10] and he received a cautiously worded recommendation from Sir Lawrence Bragg, head of the Cavendish Laboratory:

… [I am] impressed by Jan Forman's energy, wide knowledge and ingenuity in designing apparatus. He is a pleasant man to deal with. Forman is better at pioneer work than at following things up as routine. His lively mind and ingenuity are most valuable when combined with the mature judgement of men of long industrial experience. [11]

For several years after the end of the war, Britain was slow to emerge from an era of austerity and high income taxes. Many British scientists moved to the USA, a migration which became known as "the brain drain". Alfred Sommer and Jan Forman were part of this Sommer joined RCA while Forman worked or consulted for various American companies including The Burroughs Corporation, the Arnoux Corporation and Goodyear. Jan Forman's father Josef died in New York in June 1956 at the age of 70 and Jan was present at the funeral.

In the late 1950s Forman teamed up with his old friend Sir Robert Watson-Watt whose company, Adalia, was based in Montreal and in the business of developing and promoting new electronic technology. Forman held the title of Director of Special Projects, in which capacity he visited the U.S.Naval Research Laboratory at Silver Spring, MD, in February 1958. This picture (courtesy the Smithsonian Institution: Science Service Historical Image Collection) shows him with his latest invention, the Orbitron. The report [12] claimed that:

this new electron tube detector-converter, which is now being studied by the Laboratory for the Defense Department, may have many important uses in guided missiles, sea mines and other military applications.

Adalia went out of business after 1960 and Sir Robert Watson-Watt returned to a well-earned retirement in Britain, but Forman remained in the USA and continued to produce patents and publications. He was married several times, according to his daughter. One of his last publications [13] was in the area of coloured digital displays for computers. This put him in the early stages of a technical revolution that was soon to engulf the television industry, the replacement of analogue displays by digital ones. As of 1972, he was said to hold 33 issued patents [13]. His last patent was issued in 1967 [14] and his residence was given as 10548 Eastbourne Avenue, Los Angeles CA.

At about this time he married his last wife Melba (nee Urberger, b. 1921). We get a short glimpse of their convivial social life in the diaries of Patience Cleveland, the film and television actress [15].

Saturday, April 22, 1967… Jan Forman called + invited us to dinner tonight at 8 o'clock + I accepted like a shot. …. We drove out to Jan + Mels – we had a pint of bourbon between us – didn’t eat til around ten. Peter [Hobbs, her husband] played his tape + they both loved it + I was amazed at how smoothly and quickly it went. Almost too quickly now. I missed a few of the things he'd cut. But it really is excellent – We had a very nice time + a superb dinner – fresh salmon with a heavenly sauce. The only thing is we were smashed by the time we ate. We came home + had more to drink and another of our unspeakable fights.

After a period of semi-retirement and some further consulting activity, Jan Forman died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on 24 May 1987. He was survived by Melba who lived on until 2003. Although Jan Forman was a senior member of the IEEE, they could not provide any details of his life when I approached them a few years ago. No obituary was ever published and he left no diaries or memoirs. In Britain, his death was very briefly noted in an announcement from his family in the personal column of The Times.

There is no evidence that Jan Forman ever worked closely with J.L. Baird himself, who spent most of his working time at his small research laboratory next to our house in Crescent Wood Road, with his faithful assistant Paul Reveley. Mr. Reveley, still very lucid in his 100th year, did not recall ever meeting Forman or hearing his name mentioned [16]. Nevertheless, Baird Television Ltd. performed an important function in the 1930s by acting as a sort of research incubator for young physicists (Baird's bright boys), many of whom went on to have a great impact not only in television but also in other areas of applied electronics. Jan Forman was an interesting and unconventional member of this group.


I am grateful to Dr. Douglas Brown for many discussions and for drawing my attention to reference [7], and to Jan Forman's daughter for some helpful information. I am also grateful to Dr. P.Judkins of the DEHS for reading over the article and making a couple of helpful suggestions.

[1] Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, "John Logie Baird: a life", National Museum of Scotland Publications, Edinburgh (2002)

[2] Douglas Brown, "Images Across Space: the electronic imaging of Baird Television", Middlesex University Technical Services (2009). The book is currently available through the Radio Society of Great Britain.

[3] Peter Waddell and Douglas Brown, "Rudolph Jan Forman - The Forgotten genius of Baird Television", Transmission Lines, p.13, September 2011 see also later articles. Transmission Lines is published by the Defence Electronics History Society, U.K. It is held by the British Museum Library and the Science Museum Library and it is available from DEHS for purchase by non-members.

[4] http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-biography/j-forman.html accessed 6 February 2016.
[5] The Times, 22 August 1917, Law Report.

[6] Richard Temple, records department, of University of London email message to Malcolm Baird, 17 May 2012.
[7] Elma Farnsworth, "Distant Vision" p.151-2, Pemberley Kent Publishers Inc., Salt Lake City, USA (1990)

[8] Mark Frankland, "Radio man: the remarkable rise and fall of C.O. Stanley", IEE History of Technology Series, Vol.30, pp.103, 105-106, (2002)

[9] The Times, 7 March 1942, Marriages.

[10] Jan Forman and Dennis J. Crisp, "The radio-frequency absorption spectra of solutions of electrolytes", Transactions of the Faraday Society, Vol.42, pp.A186-A193 (1946). Dennis Crisp became a distinguished ocean biologist and a Fellow of the Royal Society (d.1990).
[11] Sir Lawrence Bragg, letter dated 9 May 1942, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/browse/r/402ca973-cd56-407c-b6ee-c61bb391dbf4 accessed 5 February 2016.

[12] Smithsonian Institution, item dated 21 February 1958, http://scienceservice.si.edu/pages/052011.htm accessed 5 February 2016.

[13] Jan Forman, "Phosphor color in gas discharge panel displays", Journal of the Society for Information Display, Vol.13 pp. 14-20 (1972)

[14] Jan Forman, US patent 3,356,964, "Radiant Energy Controlled Oscillator", issued 5 December 1967.

[15] https://patiencecleveland.wordpress.com/tag/peter-hobbs/page/14/ accessed 31 July 2016

[16] Paul V. Reveley, personal handwritten letter to Malcolm Baird, 27 January 2012.