This week in science history: Television’s inventor is born

Each year since 1959 the Australian television industry has honoured its favourite performers with an awards ceremony. That first year, the winners were called “stars of the year”. But for the second year, Australian entertainer Graham Kennedy suggested naming the prizes for inventor John Logie Baird, and thus were created Australia’s answer to the Emmy: the Logie.

Kennedy’s suggestion was apt, because John Logie Baird, born on August 13, 1888, in Helensburgh, Scotland, is best known for being the first person to demonstrate a working television.

An article in the Engineering and Technology History Wiki says Baird showed an early aptitude for mechanical engineering. At age 14 he electrified his family home, mostly with equipment he made himself. Also as a teenager, he tried to make a speaking film using a cinematograph, a motion picture film camera that doubles as a film projector and printer. These experiments led to his interest in seeing over long distance, and his future inventions that culminated in television.{%recommended 6749%}

By 1923 he had settled on his abiding interest, electronics and the transmission of images. Drawing on recent developments, he came up with a system of mechanical television, which relied on a device called a Nipkow disc, developed by German inventor Paul Nipkow

The ETH Wiki explains that Nipkow’s invention broke an image into fragments by using a rotating “scanning disk”, which had a pattern of holes bored into it. When the disk turned, the holes would sweep over the image, dividing it into 18 columns of information. 

Behind it were selenium photocells, which reacted to the light passing through the disk. The light from each of the 18 slices was converted to a varying electric signal in the photocell, and the signal was then transmitted to a receiver. 

There, incoming information was reassembled into a crude picture. The flow of electricity from the transmitter varied the brightness of a light bulb, the light of which was projected through another rotating Nipkow disk on to a screen.

Baird’s system also incorporated new developments in audio broadcasting, allowing him to transmit wireless images.

The BBC History website reports that on January 26, 1926, he gave “the world’s first demonstration of true television before 50 scientists in an attic room in central London. In 1927, his television was demonstrated over 438 miles [704 kilometres) of telephone line between London and Glasgow, and he formed the Baird Television Development Company, which In 1928 achieved the first transatlantic television transmission between London and New York and the first transmission to a ship in mid-Atlantic. He also gave the first demonstration of both colour and stereoscopic television.”

In a story commemorating the 1926 display, The Telegraph newspaper recounted the response of a reporter from The Times. The journalist wasn’t convinced. “It has yet to be seen to what extent further developments will carry Mr Baird’s system towards practical use,” he wrote.

Still, that was better than the reaction of the Daily Express newspaper, which in 1925 refused to talk to Baird. The paper’s news editor reportedly said: “For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless!” 

Baird never got to witness the global influence of his invention. He died in 1946, following a stroke. He is buried next to his parents in a cemetery in Argyll, Scotland.

In Australia, the annual Logies ceremony continues to be one of the most popular events on television. 

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