John Logie Baird

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John Logie Baird

1888-1946

Scottish Inventor

John Logie Baird is not credited as the inventor of the television, though he did create the first working television set in 1923. He went on to a number of "firsts," including the first color transmission. Yet his was a mechanical rather than an electronic system, and by the mid-1930s it would be rendered obsolete by a far better machine using a cathode-ray tube.

Born on August 13, 1888, in Helensburgh, Scotland, Baird was the youngest of John and Jessie Morrison Inglis Baird's four children. His father was the minister of a local parish church. Baird studied electrical engineering at the Royal Technical College in Glasgow, and went on to the University of Glasgow. He never completed his work on a bachelor of science degree, however, due to the outbreak of World War I.

Baird was not fit for military service, but spent the war years as engineer for an electrical power company. After the war, he started a series of entrepreneurial enterprises, beginning with a sock factory in 1919. A year later, he moved to the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where he set up a facility to manufacture jam and chutney. This, too, he sold after a year, moving to London to establish a soap-making company, which he sold as well. In the autumn of 1922, Baird moved to the seaside town of Hastings, where he invested his profits in experiments to develop a successful means of transmitting visual signals via wireless technology.

In order to transmit such signals, scientists had come to realize, it was necessary to develop a means for scanning the object to be transmitted. The scanned image, obtained by moving a beam of light in a series of lines from top to bottom and left to right, would create light signals which, when converted into electrical impulses, could be transmitted to a receiver. The receiver would then convert these signals into an image, which it would reproduce as a series of lines on a screen.

In 1894, German inventor Paul Nipkow had patented an idea he called the Nipkow disc, which had a series of small holes cut in a spiral. A powerful beam of light would be focused on one disc, which by rapidly rotating would create the lines of light necessary to scan the object. These would then be collected by a light-sensitive photoelectric cell that would create the electrical impulses and transmit these to a second Nipkow disc.

For the system to work, the second disc would have to be rotating rapidly, in exact synchronization with the first. Problems associated with synchronization had kept Nipkow's system from advancing past the theoretical stages until Baird in 1922 developed a way to correctly synchronize the two disks. He built his first two discs out of cardboard and other discarded objects, and in early 1923 made the world's first television transmission: the blurry images of a cross and a human hand, which he transmitted a distance of a few feet.

The decade that followed was without question the high point of Baird's career. He began demonstrating his invention to other scientists and the public, and soon became a celebrity. In 1929, under pressure from various sectors of the British government, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) allowed Baird to begin making experimental television broadcasts from its facilities, and this only further increased his prominence. In 1931, 43-year-old Baird married Mary Albu, a concert pianist with whom he later had a son and daughter.

Forming the Baird Television Development Corporation, Baird and his associates set out to develop a number of firsts, starting with the first television transmission station, in London in 1926. In 1928, he transmitted the first television signal across the Atlantic, from London to New York; the first television pictures taken outdoors in daylight; and the first color television image. Using a system he developed called "noctovision," Baird also figured out how to use infrared rays to scan objects in total darkness.

By the early 1930s, however, events were in motion that would sound the death knell on the enterprise to which Baird had devoted so much energy: both Marconi-EMI in Great Britain and RCA in America were hard at work on developing television systems that used the cathode-ray tube. The latter, invented in Germany in 1897, produced a far better picture—as Marconi-EMI proved when, in early 1935, it broadcast via the BBC's facilities.

The BBC initially agreed to allow both Baird and Marconi-EMI to broadcast, but the superiority of the cathode-ray system became so over-whelmingly apparent that in 1937, it ended its relationship with Baird. The inventor lived another nine years, and died in Bexhill, Sussex, on June 14, 1946.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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