John Logie Baird the innovator

by Malcolm Baird. This article appeared in November 2011, in a slightly different version, in the first issue of a monthly magazine called Innovator Scotland. It is dedicated to the memory of Antony Kamm, who died on February 12, 2011.

The two words 'invention' and 'innovation' are closely related but they mean two different things. An invention is an original discovery or device but 'innovation' is a much broader term which includes promotion, development, marketing and all the other ingredients of a successful business. My father's career followed parallel tracks of invention and innovation. Much has been written technically about his inventions, but historians have sometimes overlooked his work as an innovator.

As a boy in Helensburgh and as an engineering student at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College (now the University of Strathclyde), John Logie Baird had been inspired by the books of H.G. Wells. Throughout his teenage years he had regarded Wells as 'a demi-god' (his own words) and he eagerly read Wells's scientific and futuristic stories such as 'The Sleeper Awakes' (1899) which contained a prophetic description of a table-top television.

Baird was equally influenced by a less scientific H.G. Wells novel, Tono Bungay (1909), which was perhaps the first fiction ever written about innovation. It told the story of Edward Ponderevo, a small-town chemist who devised a patent medicine from ingredients whose combined cost was a very small fraction of the selling price. The key to his success was mass advertising. This was a very new idea in the Britain of the 1900s—it was considered vulgar and not quite 'gentlemanly' but in the Wells story it was enormously effective.

Tono Bungay inspired Baird to write a humorous article called 'How to Make Money' for the college magazine in 1913, under the pseudonym H2O:

Some geniuses put whisky and water, with a little cinnamon and sugar, into medicine bottles, label it 'Swamp Root Tonic Laxative—a Pure Vegetable Extract', and sell it at a shilling a bottle. They make millions. Other geniuses make 'Home-Made Strawberry Jam' with wood chips, turnips, and molasses. They make millions. Thousands upon thousands of d****d fools drudge all their lives in drawing offices. They make from 25s to £3.10s per week.

All the above methods have, you will see, some disadvantage... We have, however, evolved a simple, original, and effective means of money making. No special talents are required, and only a few minutes of your spare time once a month. Full particulars will be forwarded on receipt of your name and address and a postal order to cover postage and clerical expenses. Do it now.

After college, Baird worked for the Clyde Valley Electrical Power company, where he hatched a scheme to manufacture diamonds out of carbon using huge amounts of electricity, inspired by another H.G. Wells story, 'The Diamond Maker'. Baird's job was to repair electricity breakdowns in the Rutherglen area, but when he 'borrowed' the supply from his employer in his bid to make diamonds, the result was a crash in the network—and sadly, no diamonds. Another failed venture was a cure for piles, invented by one of his colleagues, which left Baird unable to sit down for several days.

Baird quickly recovered from these disappointments, then quit his job and started a small business, to make a cheap and simple product which he thought would have great mass appeal: The Baird Undersock. This 'revolutionary' product was advertised as 'a medicated sock' which would keep people's feet dry in Glasgow's wet weather, but it was in fact merely a plain cotton sock sprinkled with borax.

Baird's memoir (Television and Me) contains lots of useful advice about the 'do's and don'ts' of starting a small business, including the importance of advertising—and innovation. For example, he designed a full-size wooden replica of a tank, plastered it with Baird Undersock signs and trundled it through the streets of Glasgow (see above). Another innovation was his novel use of 'sandwich boards.' These were usually carried by men but male labour was in short supply during the war, so Baird used women instead—attracting much attention in the process.

Due to ill health, Baird wound up the undersock business in 1918, having made 15 times more than he could have earned as an employee at the power plant, and his next venture was a jam factory in Trinidad, using fruit and sugar which were plentiful and cheap there. This time, things went badly wrong. Baird had not properly researched the local conditions and he had not realised the prevalence of insect life and the risk of tropical infections. He returned to London in late 1920 with most of his capital gone and a notebook full of scribbled ideas for hair restorer and boot polish, etc. But one idea would soon begin to dominate his life—television.

After a few years developing the new technology, Baird gradually managed to show a recognisable head-and-shoulders 'television' picture. To fund his research, Baird had depended on his own dwindling savings and some support from his family, plus £200 from a private investor, Will Day. Some of the large electrical companies also donated badly-needed equipment such as valves and batteries, but as time went by, the relationship between Baird and Day began to deteriorate. Day was impatient for progress but Baird was struggling with technical difficulties, including a near-disastrous explosion in his laboratory.

The breakthrough came in October 1925 when Baird finally achieved 'half-tone' television pictures, as opposed to simple black-and-white silhouettes. This was followed in January 1926 by the now-famous first demonstration of television to the scientific community, including members of the Royal Institution, in London.

Soon afterwards, a new company called Television Limited was successfully floated on the London Stock Exchange. Will Day was later bought out, receiving £500 for his original £200 investment.

Throughout the late 1920s, Baird’s company went through several name changes while he used his technical and advertising skills to keep television in the public eye. In 1927, live television pictures were broadcast from London to Glasgow by telephone line and in 1928, from London to New York using short-wave radio. Colour television was also shown in 1928, and Baird also captured the public imagination with a device called 'Noctovision', in which the subject sat in front of the camera in complete darkness and the illumination was provided by infra-red rays, or in other words, heat rays. In the picture above, the sitter is Dr. Clarence Tierney and he is being illuminated by radiation from hot plates a few inches away from his face.

In 1932, Baird Television Limited was taken over by the cinema combine Gaumont British. As managing director, Baird received ₤4,000 per annum—approximately 25 times the average income—but his title was nominal as he had no administrative duties and continued to focus on research.

A major setback came in 1937 when the BBC adopted the all-electronic television system of his company's rival, Marconi-EMI. However, the Baird Company remained viable as a receiver manufacturer, and Baird himself continued to spend most of his time working on colour television in his private laboratory.

In September 1939 the BBC abruptly closed down its television service. In Baird's own words, television sets became “useless junk” overnight, and the company went into receivership. However, Baird decided to carry on his research at his own expense, and his bank account gradually shrank as the war went on.

By 1944, Baird had achieved impressive new results with colour television and 3D (stereoscopic) television. For safety reasons, my sister Diana and I were not usually allowed into my father's laboratory but he made an exception in late 1945 when he showed us a television picture, in colour, on his new patented cathode ray screen—the Telechrome. My father's technical assistant Eddy Anderson acted as the studio subject and I'll never forget the brightness and the sharpness of the picture, including even the smoke drifting up from his pipe.

Public broadcasting of television was expected to resume after the end of the war and Baird embarked once again on innovation, seeking interest and backing for a new company. He was much better able to make contacts than he had been 20 years earlier, and gathered around him an impressive team of advisers and backers, to form a new company called John Logie Baird Ltd. The company board included the well-known patent lawyer Kew Edwin Shelley, KC, plus the two main backers—the young financier John Donaldson-Hudson and the stage and screen star Jack Buchanan who had been Baird's fellow-pupil in Helensburgh, 40 years earlier.

All seemed set for a Baird comeback. But this time Baird’s old enemy, his bad health, got the upper hand, and he died in his sleep on June 14 1946, just a few days after the BBC had resumed its television service after the wartime shutdown. The Baird Company continued in business and about 20 years later it became part of Thorn Electrical which had a large plant in Bradford manufacturing Baird colour receivers. The plant closed in 1978 due to overseas competition.

Baird's legacy, however, still lives on in various ways—not just in the historical sense but also as an example to encourage a new generation of innovators.