John Logie Bird pictured at work with his ventriloquist's puppet head, Stooky Bill Image Credit: WikiCommons

The invention of the television was one that would change the world forever. Throughout its history it has been used for good, such as to entertain and to inform. It has shown us places that we didn't know where there, ideas we could never have imagined, and animals we didn't know existed.

But on balance it has also been used for bad, so as to manipulate mass population and as a tool of war. It even changed the way we arrange our living rooms.

But where did it all start?

October 2, 2015, marks 90 years since Scottish inventor John Logie Baird successfully transmitted the first ever grey-scale television image. While Baird was not alone in his quest for television, he was a pioneer and, even though his mechanical system would not become the mainstream system that would be adopted, he was still the first man to transmit a live, moving image.

As a special feature, Guides looks at the milestones in John Logie Baird’s quest for television nearly a century ago.

Who was John Logie Baird?

Born in 1888, John Logie Baird was a Scottish inventor who, by all accounts, was something of an eccentric. Before he embarked on the quest for television, he had unsuccessfully attempted numerous other projects. In an attempt to create diamonds by heating graphite to extreme temperatures, he blew up the entire Glasgow power supply. Another failed effort was a rust-proof razor blade, which being made of glass, resulted in a lot of blood.

Pneumatic shoes would also prove to be a failed experiment, as the balloons he fitted to the soles simply popped. He tried to make money by importing marmalade from the Caribbean, but this stock was ravaged by maggots and had to be destroyed.

But it wasn’t all failure. A sufferer of cold feet, Baird invented a thermal undersock that would indeed be successful and was promptly snapped up by retailers.

Baird, though, was not a healthy man. The cold and wet climate of Glasgow proved detrimental to his health and he relocated to Hastings, on the East Sussex coast of Southern England. It was here where he would embark on his quest for television.

Where the idea came from

Baird’s first design for television wasn’t something he dreamed up out of nowhere. He took an idea from Paul Gottlieb Nipkow. In 1884, Nipkow used spinning discs which rotated at speed to reflect light. This, combined with the research conducted by Arthur Korn, who had successfully built circuits capable of image transmission, was to be the basis for his groundbreaking invention.

The prototype television

To build the machine he used the lid from a hatbox, some knitting needles, a bicycle lamp, an old tea chest and, as a base, the lid of a coffin. From the centre of the hatbox lid, a spiral of concentric circles was punched and glass lenses pressed into each one. A knitting needle would act as a shaft on which the disc would spin with a bright light shining through the lenses as it rotated. The subject for transmission would sit facing the disc and the image would be transferred into an electrical signal which could be transmitted via AM radio to a receiver.  

At the receiver, the signal would travel through a neon light, and again through another spinning disc, allowing the viewer to see the moving picture.

Early in 1925, Baird successfully transmitted the silhouette image of a cross, proving that his machine was capable of transmitting broadcasts. A public demonstration on March 25 of that year at the Selfridge's department store in London brought his idea to the public’s attention.


The prototype “televisor” didn’t have the finesse to pick up the details of a human face. Baird deduced that the machine needed more power to achieve better quality, and so he went out and bought hundreds of batteries. Having previously given himself a 2000 volt electric shock (which resulted in him being kicked out of his Hastings home), Baird was more careful in his new dwellings in Soho, London.

It was in his Soho laboratory on October 2, 1925, that he was able to successfully scan the image of the head of a ventriloquist’s puppet. “Stooky Bill”, as it was called, helped refine Baird’s machine. The scanning disc had 30 lenses fitted to it, and as it rotated it was able to take five pictures per second. Baird could see Stooky Bill, but there was no way of knowing if the image could move – for that, Baird needed a real-life subject.

He rushed downstairs and grabbed the first person he saw, which happened to be a boy called Bill Taynton. Not having a clue what was going on, Taynton was dismissive of Baird’s invention, but for the sum of half a crown - the very first paid TV performance – he obliged.

Taynton sat facing the disc, sweating under the intense heat emitted by the lights, while Baird based himself at the receiver in another room. Taynton had to sit in a fixed position to remain in focus, so Baird shouted to him to poke his tongue out and, sure enough, Baird could see him do it in on the receiver.

The image was grainy and blurred, but nevertheless, television had arrived. Baird was ecstatic.

Baird's system was simple, but it worked

Baird moves into the public eye

In 1926, Baird came to the public’s attention when he demonstrated his machine to members of the Royal Institute and a reporter from The Times newspaper. By this stage, Baird had improved the performance of the prototype. Now it was able to scan 12.5 pictures per second, rather than five.

Furthermore, he could now scan more tones, making the images clearer than they had been when he scanned Stooky Bill and Taynton.

Additional improvements were made, which included further discs fitted with primary colour lenses. This meant colour transmission. As primitive as it was, it still captured the public’s imagination.

Baird talks about his mechanical television

Long distance broadcast

A year later, in 1927, Baird successfully made the first long-distance television broadcast. From London, he was able to transmit to the Central Hotel in Glasgow over the telephone line. The distance was some 705km.

It didn’t stop there; several months later Baird reached another landmark by making the first trans-Atlantic transmission, from his London base to New York.  

The Baird Television Development Company

By this point in the quest for mainstream television Baird was storming ahead. He set up the Baird Television Development Company which would aim to bring this new technology to the masses around the world.

The first television set built for retail was the Baird Model B Televisor. It wasn’t, as you would expect, a screen in the style to which we are now accustomed. It was a large mahogany box, with a porthole in which the viewer – or “looker-in” as they were known – would peer. You would literally put your head through a hole to see the picture. Early examples were meant purely for individuals.

However, the Model B Televisor was not cheap. In modern terms, it was the equivalent of buying a luxury speedboat. The design had to be re-worked so that it was more affordable for the public.

TV’s first ever broadcast

The first ever live TV broadcast by the BBC took place in 1930. It was a play called The Man with the Flower in His Mouth. Between scenes, a chequered board was put in front of the camera to allow actors and sets to take their places.

The speech wasn’t in synchronisation with the pictures. You would see the moving image of the actors talking, then the screen would go black and you’d hear the dialogue.

High Definition it was most certainly not.

The play was broadcast several times, originally in black and orange

The airwaves of Britain

While Baird had been seen by most as the inventor of television, he wasn’t the only one in the race. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, was a 14-year old boy from Utah: Philo T. Farnsworth. He devised the world’s first cathode ray tube and built the first all-electric television set. It would set the foundations for the television sets we know today. However, a lawsuit filed against his patent by American company RCA claimed that his patent was too broad, and that it too was similar to one made by Vladimir Zworykin, which they had built themselves. It meant that Farnsworth would never become the wealthy man he could have been. He was left on sidelines to watch.

RCA went on to acquire the assets of British company Marconi (later Marconi-EMI, the company named after its founder Guglielmo Marconi who first established that electricity could send radio signals through the air), who had been pioneering wireless transmissions since 1897. At this stage during the 1930s it was impossible to tell whose system would prove more successful: Baird’s mechanical system or Marconi-EMI’s all-electric system.

The BBC decided that the best way to decide who would have the airwaves of Britain was to run both side-by-side from Alexander Palace in North London. For six months, it was planned that Baird’s system would be used one week, and Marconi’s the next.

However this did lead to a problem for consumers. The television sets produced by each of the two companies were not interchangeable. If you bought the one that would be dropped after the six month test then you’d be left with a useless – and staggeringly expensive – white elephant.

But that didn’t stop the BBC pushing ahead in late 1936.

The end of Baird

It quickly became clear that mechanical television wasn’t going to work as a mainstream option when compared to the cathode ray tube electric system. With Baird realising this he enlisted the help of Philo T. Farnsworth, with whom he shared a patent agreement. Farnsworth travelled to London briefly to help Baird but the two could not get the system to work.

Not long after the six month test had begun, disaster struck. Baird’s laboratory was destroyed in the great fire that ripped through London’s Crystal Palace. With most of his equipment gone, Baird could no longer compete with Marconi-EMI.

The BBC terminated the six month test early, handing the airwaves of Britain to Marconi-EMI.

John Logie Baird went on to design and build television sets for the Marconi-EMI system before he died in 1946.

Despite the fact that his idea of mechanical television did not become the mainstream solution, he was still the one who transmitted the first live wireless moving images, he was the one responsible for the first live broadcast, and he made the first international transmission.

And, most importantly, 90 years ago he was the one who changed the world.