REBEL REBEL: John Baird, inventor of the television and the couch potato.


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In this new series, we will be spotlighting scientists of the past and present who have gone against the consensus or made discoveries that were trivialized, unnoticed, or outright ignored by their peers. Eventually, these pioneers’ contributions were celebrated by the scientific community.

John Logie Baird was a Scottish inventor and engineer who is best known for his pioneering work in the development of television. He was born on August 14, 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland and was the youngest of four children. Growing up, Baird was interested in science and technology and spent much of his time tinkering with gadgets and experimenting with new ideas.

Baird’s early work focused on mechanical television, which used a rotating disc to create a series of still images that were then transmitted over the airwaves. He began experimenting with this technology in the early 1920s and eventually developed a working prototype that he demonstrated to the public in 1926. This was a significant achievement as it was the first time that television had been successfully transmitted over the airwaves.

British inventor John Logie Baird and his first publicly demonstrated television system, with which he transmitted moving pictures March 25, 1925 at the London department store Selfridges. This was one of the first demonstrations of television technology. The selenium photoelectric tubes he used had such low sensitivity that human faces could not be televised due to their low contrast. So Baird used the two articulated ventriloquist’s dummies shown, “James” and “Stooky Bill” (right), whose painted faces had higher contrast, and televised them speaking and moving. (CREDIT: Orrin Dunlap, Jr.)

Despite the success of his early work, Baird faced many challenges as he tried to develop and commercialize his invention. One of the biggest challenges was the limited bandwidth available for television transmissions, which made it difficult to transmit high-quality images. Baird also faced competition from other inventors and companies who were working on their own television systems.

Despite these challenges, Baird continued to work on improving his system and in 1930 he transmitted the first television pictures of a human face. This was a major milestone in the development of television and helped to establish Baird as a leading figure in the field.

In the years that followed, Baird continued to work on improving his television system and eventually developed a system that used cathode ray tubes to create images. This was a significant improvement over the mechanical system he had developed earlier and it allowed for the transmission of high-quality images.

Despite his many accomplishments, Baird faced financial difficulties throughout his career and was never able to fully capitalize on his inventions. Despite this, he continued to work on new projects and in 1940 he developed the first color television system. This was a major achievement, but it was not widely adopted as the technology was still in its infancy.

An article in the Proceedings of the IEEE sums up Baird’s achievements,

Baird had, since his youth, possessed a strong interest in images and the potential for employing electrical engineering advances to be able to transmit them. When he decided, in 1923, to devote his full energy to the creation of a television system, he faced the challenge of limited funding. His work had to follow a path dependent on the reuse and adaptation of known technologies. His achievement stands as testimony to the ethos of engineers, who are sometimes described as transforming scientific learning into practical solutions. 

The article concludes,

Baird’s insight in applying existing technology toward another use, television, is the mark of someone thinking outside the box—now celebrated as an essential part of creativity. There is an element of (dry, British) humor in the out-of-the-box thinking, with the need to hide the results inside the box, in order to develop “the box.”

Throughout his career, Baird was recognized for his contributions to the field of television. He was awarded the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal in 1931, and in 1936 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In recognition of his contributions to the field of television, Baird was awarded the Television Society’s Gold Medal in 1946 and the Royal Television Society’s Armstrong Memorial Medal in 1954.

John Logie Baird passed away on June 14, 1946, at the age of 57. Despite the relatively short duration of his career, his contributions to the field of television were significant and helped pave the way for the development of the television industry as we know it today. He will always be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of television and his legacy lives on in the countless televisions that are used around the world every day.

WORDS: Staff.

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