Adapted from Teletronic, the television history site
The conditions for the birth of television can be traced back to 1817, when the Swedish scientist Berzelius discovered selenium, a metalloid in the oxygen group with electrical properties. Then, in 1873, a telegraph operator in the West of Ireland, accidentally discovered that some selenium rods, which were used as resistances, altered in value under the influence of strong sunlight. The discovery of the photosensitive properties of selenium led to the possibility of converting light waves into electrical impulses and was communicated to the Society of Telegraph Engineers, creating widespread interest. It was not long before selenium “cells” were constructed by Bell, Siemens and others.
Despite many attempts and suggestions for transmitting moving pictures before the end of the nineteenth Century, difficulties in amplifying the impulses had halted progress. Nevertheless, many predicted that it would soon be possible to obtain vision over an ordinary telephone line.
Paul Nipkov’s disc scanner made use of the selenium cell, but it appeared that selenium was unable to respond to the enormous signalling requirement. The whole idea of television was to transmit images with such rapidity that they appeared instantaneous to the eye, with movements as smooth and natural as that seen on a cinema screen, and selenium seemed unable to achieve this.
Selenium had not been the only means of turning light into electricity available to the earlier television experimenters, for in 1888 Hertz and Hallwach made discoveries which led to the construction of photo-electric cells. These new cells seemed at first to offer an alternative to the slowness of selenium as they were capable of being instantaneous in their action. However, the photoelectric cells proved insufficiently sensitive and would not respond to the small amount of light available: even massively illuminated, a human face simply did not reflect back enough light.
Solving what seemed like a simple problem in theory had proved insurmountable in practice, and by the time John Logie Baird decided to begin experimenting with it, almost fifty years had passed with no real progress being made, despite much effort from researchers of all nationalities.
Using an assortment of second-hand equipment, Logie Baird assembled crude television apparatus, described in Ronald F. Tiltman’s book as follows: “An old tea chest, purchased for a few pennies formed the base that carried a motor, which rotated the exploring disc, while an empty biscuit box housed the projection lamp. Scanning discs were cut out of cardboard, and the mountings consisted of darning needles and old scrap timber. The necessary lenses on the optical side of the apparatus were procured from bicycle shops at a cost of four pence each, while electric motors ready for the scrap-heap were pressed into service on duties for which they were never intended. At the time there were a great deal of ex-Government wirelesses available for a very minimal cost, and Baird bought scraps of these for his own use, adapting them to his needs. One or two old hat boxes were also utilised, and the whole conglomeration of bits and pieces was precariously held together with glue, sealing wax and odd lengths of string. These early experiments also demanded a high use of electricity and this was supplied by accumulators, (storage batteries similar to those used in motor vehicles), for lighting.”
Baird realised that despite the theoretical simplicity of the task, the task of creating a practical solution had eluded many. The main difficulty lay in the light sensitive cell and therefore he concentrated all his efforts on that part of the system.
In this he enlisted help from Victor Mills, a schoolboy at the time. Baird had read reports of a sophisticated wireless set built by a schoolboy at Hastings Grammar School, and went to the boy’s home to meet him. Called to the door by his mother, Victor Mills encountered Baird for the first time with the inventor telling him about his work on television. “What’s television?” inquired young Victor. “Seeing by wireless,” replied Baird. “You probably know something about resonance. I’m getting a picture but can’t do anything with it. I’m getting too much noise.” Mills claimed that he soon discovered the cause of Baird’s problem was that his selenium cells were too big. Mills also claims that on his second trip to Baird’s makeshift laboratory he took some of his own radio equipment with him. Whilst making adjustments, Mills put his hand in front of the illuminated apparatus. “I decided I’d got it right and just then Baird yelled out, “It’s here, it’s here!” And according to Mills the first pictures ever transmitted were of his hand.
There are contradicting reports of exactly when the first image was transmitted (and of what), but by the time Baird made his first reported breakthrough in transmitting a picture, his meagre funds were completely exhausted. Realising the full necessity of getting financial assistance he demonstrated his crude results to the press. An account of his experiments appeared in the ‘Kinematograph Weekly’ on 3rd April 1924. Reporter F.H. Robinson wrote that Baird had demonstrated to the writer’s satisfaction that radio vision was almost “a commercial proposition.” Robinson informed readers that all of the apparatus used in the experiment could be purchased for £40.00, and that, ” undoubtedly wonderful possibilities are opened up by this invention.”
Progress continued, but it was incredibly slow. Gradually Baird advanced from the transmission of his “shadowgraphs” and succeeded in transmitting outlines of simple objects in black and white.
In March 1925, Mr Gordon Selfridge Junior got to hear of Baird’s experiments that had resulted in the transmission of simple “shadowgraphs”. He was given a demonstration and saw transmitted from one room to another a crude outline of a paper mask. Tiltman’s book explains: “This was made to wink by covering the eyeholes with white paper, and it could be made to open
These demonstrations were packed daily by scientists and general visitors from around the country, but those expecting to see a combination of the cabinetmaker’s art and scientific equipment (as the public had come to expect from wireless receivers) were to be sadly disappointed. Instead, what their eyes beheld was a lens disc consisting of a circle cut from a cardboard box (the lenses being fixed between two layers of cardboard), whilst other parts of the apparatus showed the clear markings of a soapbox. The receiver consisted of a cardboard disc with sixteen holes arranged in two spirals. Synchronisation was obtained by using two little synchronous motors, one attached to the shaft of the transmitter and one to the shaft of the receiver, the motors being kept in step by a signal sent out from the transmitter, which was used to control the receiver.
In spite of the publicity the inventor and his invention was receiving, his business partner grew tired of the lack of progress and told Baird that he would not invest one penny more. Baird remained convinced that he was within grasp of the vital missing link that would allow him to progress to the next stage of development. But without further funding, he found himself almost on the point of giving up. He was now living in poverty. His health again began to suffer, and in spite of trying to arouse interest in his project from the offices of several newspapers, he found that he was now being dismissed as nothing short of a crank. To save himself from starvation he had to realise a few shillings by selling vital parts of his apparatus. Finally, his work had stopped.
When his family in Scotland discovered the conditions that John Logie Baird had been living in, they responded by purchasing £500.00 worth of shares in the little known company now formed and known as Television, Ltd. Baird immediately set about remodelling his apparatus and improving its optical system. The effect of this rendered the transmitted images more sharply than ever before but still with no detail. On the evening of 1st October 1925 Baird concluded a series of tests using the latest light-sensitive system that he had devised. The following morning, October 2nd 1925, was spent fitting the device and generally overhauling the equipment. Early on this Friday afternoon he placed “Bill” in front of the transmitter. Bill, was a rather dilapidated ventriloquist’s doll that Baird had been using for many months in his experiments. Normally the dolls head came through on the receiving screen as a white blob with three black blobs marking the position of the nose and eyes. But on this occasion Bill suddenly appeared as a recognisable image, with shading and detail. The nose, eyes and eyebrows could be distinguished and the top of the head appeared rounded. In his autobiography, Baird described this historic occasion: “The image of the dummy’s head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to be almost unbelievable clarity.”
Flushed with success, Baird rushed downstairs where he came across William Taynton, a young office boy working on the floor below. Baird convinced the office boy to go upstairs and sit before the transmitter where enormous electric lamps gave out a glaring light and a great deal of heat. Baird rushed to the next room to see the results on his receiver but was dismayed to discover that it was entirely blank. No amount of adjusting the equipment would produce a picture, and a crest-fallen Baird went back to the transmitter. Under the intense heat, Taynton had moved away from the lamps and had moved out of focus. Baird explained to the boy that he must remain exactly where placed. This time Taynton’s image appeared on the receiving screen.
On the 27th January 1926 nearly fifty scientists answered Baird’s invitation, entering Baird’s accommodation one small group at a time. Tiltman recorded: “When news reached the USA of Baird’s achievement ’Radio News’, one of the country’s foremost journals, sent a commissioner to investigate. In their issue of September 1926 an article appeared that included the following paragraph: “Mr Baird has definitely and indisputably given a demonstration of real television. It is the first time in history that this has been done in any part of the world.” Furthermore, in an article on television in the ‘New York Times’ of 6th March 1927, reference was made to the fact that “no one but this Scotch minister’s son had ever transmitted and received a recognisable image with its graduations of light and shade.”
With new capital investment, Baird’s research now led to gradually improved results and as he worked towards turning his apparatus into a commercial success, he began to achieve results with the use of normal lighting.
Baird’s success and growing reputation caused his contemporaries to redouble their efforts. In April 1927 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company staged the first television demonstration over any distance outside of England. Images were sent by wire for a distance of 200 miles between Washington and New York. The demonstration was staged amid great publicity and relied on about 1000 engineers. Baird made no comment on the American test but the following month he arranged his own demonstration when pictures were transmitted over the 438 miles of telephone line between London and Glasgow.
Adapted by Maria Cox, MMTA