the inventor of television?

There can be few people of my age group (i.e. getting on a bit) who would not recognise the name of John Logie Baird. However, this seems not to hold good for the younger generation. Certainly, when I taught technology, I was surprised and rather dismayed to find that few of the young teenagers in my classes knew the name. In fairness, few knew the name of Marconi either and as for Ambrose Fleming, Heinrich Hertz and other pioneers of radio communication... not a chance.

Baird is famous - or deserves to be - for the invention of television in the UK. That is quite a statement and requires qualification (see below).

Still, if you asked a knowledgeable Russian citizen who invented TV you may well get the answer 'Zworykin'. Ask the same question of a similarly well-informed American and the answer 'Farnsworth' and so it goes on, with several countries having claim to being the first to succeed with television. It does stand as incontrovertible, however, that a British man was the first person to show the rest of the world genuine television images. 

Baird put together disparate ideas that had been around for years, at the heart of which was the scanning disc  developed by the German inventor Paul Nipkow in 1884. Nipkow was on the right lines - if you'll pardon the pun - but the means were not at hand to develop the device into a useable form. In the early 1920s Baird pressed into use the early amplifying radio valve which had been invented some years before by DeForest, based upon the Fleming diode. The early valves were used to boost the weak signals created by the mechanical scanning disc system. Working virtually alone and always pressed financially, he was able by 1925 to demonstrate that he had indeed created television. 

Baird developed his mechanical systems until they reached a quality that would support test transmissions. The BBC, under the stiff-lipped leadership of John Reith held the monopoly on radio transmissions in the UK. Despite Reith's antipathy toward Baird, the BBC were pressured into grudgingly allowing him air time and Baird transmitted 30-line low definition images on medium wave. He knew that higher definition was essential if TV was to become more than a curiosity. He also understood the need for greater bandwidth that only short wave transmission could provide, but his requests for tests on such frequencies were futile, seemingly blocked at every turn by Reith. There is the misconception that Baird only worked with mechanical TV, an interesting idea but a technological cul-de-sac. Perhaps this has come about because his system was beaten by the vast EMI organisation in a 'contest' to decide who should provide TV in Great Britain. It was a one-sided fight: Baird had far fewer resources than EMI and no support from the BBC hierarchy. Yet, contrary to popular belief he worked with cathode ray tubes in a number of ways, creating for instance large screen displays of a projection type using small and brilliant tubes. How many people were aware that he invented the Telechrome tube, a colour CRT device long predating the RCA shadowmask? The RCA patent describes this as 'prior art'. Among other notable achievements, he invented 'Noctovision', a method of seeing by infra-red light (night vision) and suggested the use of radio waves for a similar purpose, predating radar by some years.

Baird has, by some, been dismissed as misguided for pressing ahead with mechanical systems. Hindsight is truly a wonderful thing: but it should be borne in mind that, at the time, other mechanical systems had been shown to both be highly successful and capable of making fortunes. Two obvious examples? The cinematograph and the gramophone.

A basic form of colour television was demonstrated by Baird as early as 1928 and his 600 line large screen colour receiver of 1940 was far in advance of anything else at the time. He was interested in very large screen cinema TV and designed stereoscopic television transmission and reception before the war. As if all that wasn't enough, he recorded 30-line picture signals on disc, thereby creating the first video recording system.

All this whilst struggling for money and battling against poor health. I believe history will come to see Baird as a much-maligned and badly treated near-genius, a restlessly brilliant inventor who should justly be considered one of the greats of the twentieth century, alongside Marconi, Whittle, Von Braun and others. 

Some reject any claim to greatness, saying that Baird invented nothing, he just put together things invented by others. This is grossly unfair. Judged by the same standard, Edison did not invent the electric lamp,  he just put together glass, tungsten wire, electricity, things created by others. In my opinion, what Edison created was something new: lighting by electricity. Baird also invented television, at least in the sense that it had never been achieved before. There is nothing new under the sun, or so the old saying goes. This may be so, but what was definitely new in Britain in the 1920s was Baird's courage in combining the vague speculations of others to create the foundation of television, despite powerful opposition and his own physical shortcomings. 

Let us hope that time - and the historical record - will redress the balance and allow this amazing man the credit he so obviously deserves.

For more on the subject, I urge you to read the excellent 'John Logie Baird' By Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird.