The Birth of Television

On the 2nd October 1925, television was born in a rented attic in London’s Soho by Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird. Dubbed a ‘maverick inventor’, Baird had finally succeeded in televising an image of his ventriloquist’s dummy named ‘Stooky Bill’.

Growing up, Baird was a clever and tremendously curious child. He was fascinated by technology, and even installed electric lighting in his parent’s Scottish home when he was a teenager.

At the age of 34, when he began his quest to develop television, he already had various failed business ventures behind him including a glass razor blade that would never rust (which he had badly cut himself with before abandoning the project) and a disastrous homemade haemorrhoid cream. He did have some successes however, and with the capital from the sales of his socks and soap businesses, he focused on his dream of creating a way of transmitting and receiving moving images.

In 1924 he turned the rented attic in Soho into his laboratory, experimenting obsessively. Dogged by ill health, regularly short of funds and often working alone, he improvised his apparatus from scrap materials. He based his system off a large spinning disc invented by Paul Nipkow in 1883, which had a spiral of holes in which light had to pass through into a light-sensitive cell. Desperate to succeed, Baird designed bigger and bigger discs with larger and larger lenses, culminating in a disc over eight feet in diameter. Running at full speed, it was lethal; the heavy lenses flew off, bursting into shards of glass as they hit the walls.

The experience shockingly didn’t unnerve Baird, so he pushed on and finally succeeded in producing a simple outline image of an object. What was needed for ‘true television’ (Baird’s words) was a system that would give enough detail to produce a recognisable image and currently, the primitive equipment was only able to transmit black and white silhouettes, not recognisable faces, on a tiny screen.

Realising he needed publicity to attract investors to continue his experiments, Baird demonstrated his ‘televisor’ at Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street. The huge shop was pioneering, offering shopping as a leisure pursuit rather than a necessity. Liking to entice crowds with new inventions and attractions, Selfridge himself was fascinated by Baird’s creation.

Following the appearance, Baird experimented endlessly to increase the number of ‘TV lines’ to produce a recognisable image, and on the 2nd October 1925, everything finally came together when Stooky Bill’s actual face appeared on the screen with gradations of light and shade. Needing to see if he could transmit a human subject, he quickly ‘borrowed’ the office boy, William Taynton, from downstairs and successfully repeated the experiment. Consequently, ‘low definition’ television was born, as well as a historic moment that would change the face of technology and entertainment forever.

Photo Caption: Baird with two ventriloquist’s dummy heads – ‘Stooky Bill’ to the right and ‘James’ to the left – that he used in an early demonstration of his television system at Selfridges. Source: Public Domain