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What did John Logie Baird really do in World War II?

by Malcolm Baird

One of several myths that have grown up around Baird is that after the defeat of his company in the competition for the BBC high definition camera contract in 1937, he did no further research on television. A widely-advertised American book1 contains the following passage:

"...[Baird] tried to get involved in war work, in particular with radar, but the world had passed him by; the government offered him nothing. He tried to conduct research in his own home, but it was impossible under wartime conditions. Mainly he just tried to hold on until the war was over."

This is very far from the truth. Although Baird's involvement with radar in World War II is still a grey area, he did extensive research on television between 1939 and 1946. Baird's television research is well documented in 28 patents, as well as the numerous photographs, articles and reports of demonstrations. This short article is an overview of details of Baird's wartime work which have been published2,3 or are about to be published4 in several major books.

After the defeat of Baird television Ltd. in January 1937 in the competition for the BBC camera contract, the company stayed in business as a leading manufacturer of television receivers. Baird continued his research on colour television. In February 1938 he demonstrated large-screen colour projection television at the Dominion cinema in London, to an audience of three thousand.5

In September 1939 the UK declared war on Germany; all British television broadcasting was shut down, and Baird Television Ltd. went into receivership because there was no market for television sets. However Baird himself continued with his television research, drawing on his personal savings. His activities were centred at his small laboratory adjoining his house at 3 Crescent Wood Road, about a mile from the Crystal Palace site, with one full-time assistant, Edward Anderson. Baird would take occasional short breaks to visit his family who had moved to the far west coast of England to escape the bombing.

Colour television and the "Telechrome" tube

Baird developed a system of high-definition colour television in which the subject was scanned by a rapidly moving spot of light projected from a small but very powerful cathode ray tube. A patent was applied for in October 19406 and the first public demonstration was given in December 1940.7 In front of the tube there was a rotating transparent wheel containing two coloured segments, one tinted in blue-green and the other in orange-red. The reflected light from the scanning spot was picked up by colour-sensitive photocells. Each turn of the wheel gave one picture in each colour. The process was repeated at the receiving end (Figure 1).

A diagram of the Baird field-sequential colour television system.

The rapid repetition of the blue-green and orange-red images gave the viewer a blended colour image. In a later version of this "field-sequential" system, the three primary colours (red, blue and green) were incorporated in the colour wheel. This system was patented by Baird8 and a short technical paper was published showing a colour photograph of an image. A somewhat similar system was developed independently in the USA by Dr. Peter C. Goldmark of CBS; this system was accepted in the USA for a short time in the early 1950s as the standard for colour television.

The colour wheel made an historic comeback in 1969 when it was used in the lightweight cameras developed by Westinghouse for the NASA moon landing.9 One of the prototype NASA cameras has recently been acquired by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The colour wheel is still being used today on a miniature scale in many digital light projection (DLP) television sets.

In 19421944, Baird developed the world's first colour cathode ray tube, christened "the Telechrome". It had no mechanical moving parts and in its original form (Figure 2) it contained a special semi-transparent screen with differently coloured phosphors (blue-green and orange-red) on each side. Two streams of electrons hit the screen from opposite sides and thereby produced two superimposed pictures which were blended in the eye of the viewer to give colour. A later version employed the three primary colours red, blue and green. Patent coverage was obtained10 and I can remember seeing high quality colour pictures in the Sydenham laboratory in the autumn of 1945. This early work was acknowledged as "prior art" by RCA in their later development of all-electronic colour television which replaced the partly mechanical CBS system in the USA in 1953.

a diagram of the Telechrome colour picture tube invented by Baird

The only known surviving example of a Telechrome tube is a prototype in the collection of the Science Museum.

3-D television and volumetric imaging

After the demonstration of high-definition colour television in 1940, Baird's attention moved to three-dimensional television. The principle behind the simplest form of 3-D television is that human eyes give two slightly different viewpoints through which the brain is able to perceive depth. Baird used this same principle in his patent for high-definition three-dimensional television which is sketched in Figure 3. The two different views were transmitted in rapid alternating sequence by means of a series of oscillating mirrors and rotating shutters; the wearing of polarized glasses by the viewer made it easier for him/her to receive the appropriate image in each eye. The system was demonstrated to the press in December 194111 and described in the technical literature.12 A vivid first-hand account of the 1941 demonstration has been provided by Dr. Richard B. Head.13 In March 2008, 67 years later, the BBC demonstrated a large-screen 3-D broadcast of a rugby match in Scotland for an audience in London wearing special polarized viewing glasses.14

a diagram of one of Baird's 3-D colour television systems.

From 1942 onwards, Baird was occupied with true three-dimensional (volumetric) imaging which did not depend on creating the illusion of depth from Two-dimensional images. At the camera end, the subject was scanned by a moving spot of light that was picked up by photocells carefully situated to receive the reflection from the subject at different angles, with depth (or range) being perceived by the reduction of the intensity of the reflected light according to the inverse square law. At the receiving end, the depth effect was achieved by moving the viewing screen normal to its plane, according to the depth of the image. The viewer could look around the image from different angles, without the need for special viewing glasses. A name suggested by Baird for his system was "the Phantoscope".

A full description would be too long for this short article, but details are given by Dr. Douglas Brown.4 Baird became ill soon after his volumetric imaging patent15 was finally accepted in November 1945, so it was never publicized. It was far ahead of its time.

High speed transmission of images (fast facsimile)

Late in 1940 it occurred to Baird that television might be used for the very rapid transmission of a sequence of different images such as pages in a report including maps or diagrams. Such messages would be unintelligible to enemy monitors who were trained to listen for messages in voice or in Morse code. Notations in Baird's diary for November 18 and 19, 1940 mention "secret signalling" and he appears to have discussed the idea with his friend and former colleague, Major Archie Church.

In the summer of 1941, Baird was in a country hospital at Tempsford, Bedfordshire, recuperating from a heart attack that he had sustained on May 13th. He took a day off from his health cure to travel into London on July 30th for a lunch meeting with Sir Edward Wilshaw, Managing Director of Cable and Wireless, and his fellow director Admiral H.W. Grant. The discussions centered around the need to extend and improve the company's network of communications. Later in 1941, Baird was appointed Consulting Engineer to Cable and Wireless at an annual fee of £1000. This appears to have been the only outside income that Baird received between 1939 and 1944 and he was deeply grateful.

The outcome of the Cable and Wireless contract was a system whereby a series of still images were photographed on cine film, one frame at a time; the film was then rapidly developed, fixed and scanned at 25 frames per second. The rapid succession of images was transmitted over short wave as a television signal. The received images were then photographed back on to cine film which was rapidly processed, so that it could be printed and studied at leisure. a photograph of Baird's fast facsimile apparatusFigure 4 shows Baird standing next to the receiving apparatus.

As matters turned out, Cable and Wireless had only a few high-power short wave transmitters available, and they were not willing to assign one of them to Baird's project which was considered to be merely experimental.16 No patents were taken out, either by Cable and Wireless or by Baird himself. However, permission was given to release details to the press and a demonstration was given by Baird on August 16, 1944. On the following day he was quoted in the Glasgow Herald: "The instrument makes an international newspaper seem probable. A whole newspaper could be transmitted about the world in a matter of seconds."

Nothing more was heard on this until the autumn of 1948, two years after Baird's death. The American communications industry had evidently found out about Baird's work and had shown far more interest in it than Cable and Wireless. A system dubbed "Ultrafax" was demonstrated by RCA and Eastman Kodak at the Library of Congress in Washington17 and later reported in a technical journal.18 David Sarnoff of RCA claimed his company's credit for this invention without making any mention of Baird. He boasted that it was the communications equivalent of "splitting the atom".19 It was suggested that rapid Ultrafax communications could be sent via television channels outside regular broadcasting hours.

Large screen television receivers

In 1944 the end of the war was in sight and Baird obtained financing for a new company which was called John Logie Baird Limited. The main product was to be high-quality television receivers and in particular large screen receivers. To this end, Baird designed an exceptionally large cathode ray tube with a 28-inch screen. In the 1940s, conventional conical cathode ray tubes could not be made in such a large size without considerable risk of implosion. Baird conceived the idea of replacing the conical shape by the more mechanically stable spherical shape; large spherical glass vacuum bulbs were commercially available from the Hewittic Company, a manufacturer of mercury arc rectifiers. The phosphorescent screen was introduced into the bulb by Baird's part-time glassblower Arthur Johnson, using an ingenious insertion method similar to the making of "a ship in a bottle".20 This device was patented21 and one prototype set, known as "The Grosvenor" was built. It was set up at the Savoy Hotel to receive the BBC television broadcast of the Victory Parade on June 8 1946. Baird was not present as he was confined to his bed at home in Bexhill. He died in his sleep a few days later, on June 14 1946.

Summary of Conclusions

John Logie Baird's television research during World War II was highly productive. Although it received little publicity at the time, it was taken up by other companies including RCA in the United States. Baird's spinning colour wheel was part of the design of the special NASA colour camera which televised the moon landing in 1969 and it is also a feature of many digital light projection (DLP) televisions. Modern 3D television, using polarized glasses, can be traced back to the work of Baird over 60 years ago.


Figures 1 to 3 were prepared by Robert Britton from original patent drawings and appeared in reference 3. The picture in Figure 4 is from the collection at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.


1 D.E. Fisher and M.J. Fisher, "Tube: the Invention of Television", p.250, Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1996.
2 R. Burns, "John Logie Baird; television pioneer", London, UK: History of Technology Series, No.28, IEE, 2000.
3 A. Kamm and M. Baird, "John Logie Baird: a life", Edinburgh, UK: NMS Publishing, 2002
4 D. Brown, "Images Across Space", London, UK: Middlesex University Press, in press for summer 2009.
5 Ref.3, p.307.
6 J.L. Baird, "Improvements in Colour Television Apparatus", UK Patent 545,603, applied for Oct. 23 1940, accepted Jun 4. 1942.
7 Anon., "Progress in Colour Television: Mr. Baird's Achievement", The Times, Dec. 21 1940.
8 J.L. Baird, "Improvements in Television Apparatus", UK Patent 545,078, applied for Sept. 7 1940, accepted May 11 1942.
10 J.L. Baird, "Improvements in Colour Television" UK Patent 562,168, applied for July 25 1942, accepted Jun. 21 1944.
11 Anon. "New Progress In TelevisionMr. Baird's Invention" The Times, Dec. 19 1941.
12 J.L. Baird.,"Stereoscopic Television" Electronic Engineering, pp. 620-621, February 1942.
13 R.B. Head, "Baird's Stereoscopic Colour Television in 1941" Brit. Vintage Wireless Soc. Bull., vol.22 no.3, pp. 38-39 (1997).
14 G. Smith, "Time to raise your glasses for the England horror picture show", The Times, p.88 (sports), Mar.11 2008.
15 J.L. Baird, "Improvements in Television", UK Patent 573,008, applied for Aug. 26 1943 to Feb. 9 1944, accepted Nov. 1 1945.
16 Sir Edward Wilshaw, letter to S.A. Moseley, August 7 1951, quoted in S.A. Moseley, "John Baird", London UK: Odhams Press, 1952.
17 T.R. Kennedy, "Novel Copied, Sent by Air in 2 minutes: Electronic-Photographic Device Hailed by Sarnoff of RCA as Great Milestone" New York Times, p. 27, Oct. 22 1948.
18 Anon., "Ultrafax", Electronics, vol.22, no.1, pp.76-77, 1949.
19 Anon., "Science: The flying words", Time, Nov. 1 1948.
20 D. Brown and M. Baird, "John Logie Baird's Last Projects", Brit. Vintage Wireless Soc. Bull., vol.33, no.4, pp. , 43- 46, 2008.
21 J.L. Baird, "Screens for Television Tubes", UK Patent 579,482, applied for Apr. 28 1945 , accepted Aug. 6 1946.

The ongoing mystery of John Logie Baird, World War II and "Watt"

In 2005 I co-wrote with Peter Waddell and Douglas Brown an article in which we tried to set out, in a readable style, all the properly documented connections between John Logie Baird, Television and Radar. The article appears on this website. However it has been claimed that the radar connections in the article are greatly understated -- and that Baird was involved in top-secret work with the famed British radar pioneer Robert Watson Watt throughout World War II, and that his name was deliberately omitted from Watson Watt's autobiography as part of a conspiracy of silence.

On the surface this seems unlikely. Entries in Baird's pocket diary in his spidery handwriting, reproduced below, indicate that he was looking for consulting work with a General Whitaker (or Whittaker) and Watson Watt on May 26 and June 3 1943. There is no confirmation that he ever succeeded in this quest.

an image of Baird's wartime diary

However, Baird's diary for 1940 also contains entries mentioning the name "Watt". It has been suggested that this was in fact Robert Watson Watt, which would support the claim that Baird was connected with operational radar throughout the war. If this is true, it would be hard to explain the May/June 1943 diary entries unless they were intended as a blind to deceive enemy agents. Such an explanation might appeal to the dedicated reader of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré.

For many years the problem of the identity of the mysterious "Watt" in the 1940 diary has nagged at me. A possible clue is a phone number that Baird had entered in a list at the front of the diary. It was a London numberGER(ald) 2666. A few months ago as a very long shot, I tried googling that number and there was a hit. This led me to a 560-page-long doctoral thesis entitled "Listen to Britain" on the subject of wartime UK propaganda, by a German student called Jürgen Berger (University of Mannheim, 2001). The phone number GER 2666 appeared in one of the many footnotes, as belonging to the Post Office Film Unit.

The only Watt connected with the GPO Film Unit was the filmmaker Harry Watt (19061987) who was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. He was famous for directing the acclaimed documentary film "Night Mail" in 1936 and he went on to make successful films for Ealing Studios. Baird seems to have tried to get in touch with Watt by phone on several dates in 1940 (April 27, June 15, August 1) and at last, he scribbled a draft letter in his diary on October 18, in the midst of the London blitz:

Dear Mr. Watt
I know that you must be a busy man but I would be very much [obliged] if you could let me have the Television book and photos. I want to [lend] them to a man who is writing a book on Television. I hope all goes well with you.

The interpretation is that Harry Watt had approached Baird earlier on a documentary film project which had not gone ahead so that Baird was asking for the return of a book and photos that he had lent to Watt.

Does this entirely rule out any connection between Baird and radar during the war? Before jumping to a conclusion, we should consider the following paragraph from Watt's 1974 autobiography, called "Don't Look at the Camera":

We were asked, early in 1939, in a roundabout and tentative manner, if we could make, under strict security, an animated diagram film, to be used to teach certain unspecified scientific developments. We know now that it was radar, but as no one would tell us anything specific, and we did not have a clue what was wanted, we soon got bogged down in a typical official impasse. We finally explained that we had no facilities to make cartoon or animated films, but could set up a complete department in six weeks, at considerable cost. We never heard anything more, and I don't know if that vital film was ever made.

Is it possible that J.L. Baird was part of this radar teaching project? After 70 years, we simply do not have enough information for a complete answer.

Malcolm Baird, July 2010