If only he could be here now… 

14 August 2017 tbs.pm/13011


From the TVTimes for 15-21 November 1969 – the week the major ITV regions went colour

My life with TV’s lonely genius

Mrs Margaret Baird

To the people in his days of pioneering television, John Logie Baird was a “cranky egg-head,” an absent-minded inventor who got married in bedroom slippers. History will judge him as a scientist of vision and dedication. Yet he made more money from his Patent Sock, sprinkled with boracic powder, than from his work on television

I often try to imagine what John Logie Baird, the man who invented television some 40 years ago, would think of his brainchild if he could sit down to an evening’s view-i ing these days.

He’d be thrilled that everything he predicted would happen has come to pass. Splendid achievements like Eurovision; the independent television companies incorporating optional regional viewing and, of course, colour television. Viewers in 1969 take it all for granted. But believe me, many people considered John a cranky egg-head when he visualised these developments  in the Thirties.

He’d smile to himself that, as yet, no one has mastered the 1,000-line picture. John’s experiments in this particularly-specialised field were almost complete before his death in 1946.

He’d be angry that British scientists and engineers haven’t come up with their own colour-TV system. We use the German method. John first demonstrated colour television in 1928 at the British Association meeting in Glasgow. By 1939 he had produced a fine 600-line picture which he proudly exhibited at the Radio Show. His system was done with coloured filters, but he told me it would cost a million pounds to develop and no one would put up the money for research.

He’d approve of the massive sports coverage we get. John was a great sports fan, so he’d have loved any football or athletics programmes. Actually, he was the first man successfully to televise the finish of the Derby, way back in 1932. A large screen was erected in the Metropole Cinema, Victoria, for this show.

He’d be riveted to the many documentary programmes like World in Action, and the recent memoirs of Lord Mountbatten. Mind you, I think some of today’s noisy pop music shows and comedy half-hours would be enough to make him throw up his hands and shout: “Oh Lord, what have I done!”

If he were alive today, he would certainly be a force in television. And not only on the technical side. I can imagine him clearly in a TV studio, his tall figure restless, his blue eyes glowing, his gentle hands — one of them clutching his small, black notebook — moving expressively to emphasise a point in a David Frost programme or in News at Ten or This Week. For he had strong views about the way in which television should develop.

Most of all, he saw television as a great educational medium of the future. He wanted to provide the man in the street with a reliable way of watching world events as they took place.

Through television, he hoped people could learn about one another and many faraway countries, perhaps even master foreign languages. He was sure this would eventually lead to closer understanding in the world.

“Newspaper reportage is almost always bound to be biased or sensational,” he once told me. “Television cameras will provide an on-the-spot coverage which will be both accurate and interesting.”

John had an outsize social conscience and his greatest worry was what could happen if his invention fell into the wrong hands.

“People could be brainwashed with political propaganda,” he said — and often prayed he hadn’t started something that could grow into a social or political evil.

Although I didn’t marry John until 1931 — when he was already 43 — I was still old enough to remember the frenetic upsurge of creative energy that followed the First World War.

What was left of the bold, younger generation were freer than they’d ever been — and all the more determined to build a new world after the war.

Armed with university degrees in electrical engineering and power engineering. John couldn’t bear the idea of taking a full-time job which, as he said, was “like a long vista of grey days.”

He was restless; his lively, inventive mind full of schemes.

After we married, he’d tell me stories about his youth, as we walked side by side along his favourite Sussex seashore at Bexhill-on-Sea.

We’d laugh together over his early inventions, Like the razor blade made of glass, which would never go blunt, and Baird’s Patent Sock. He abandoned the razor blade after cutting his face to pieces.

But he did rather better with the sock which he advertised ‘To keep feet warm in Winter and cool in Summer,’ and hawked round the chemists and drapers of Glasgow.

He made nearly £2,000 out of his patent socks which he admitted, rather sheepishly, were simply puffed through with boracic powder!

John painted me vivid word pictures of his trip to Trinidad, where he hoped to become a super-salesman. As he spoke, he conjured up the tropical flowers, blaring sunshine and, best of all, the tons of cheap sugar.

But he was only happy inventing new products such as a home-made jam and chutney factory. I could almost see him crouched over a boiling cauldron, along with a Hindu helper called Ram Roop, and smell the cooking sugar and fruit, plus any stray insects which happened along!

John went on like this until he was 35, when his interest in electrical engineering returned.

Wireless was then making a big impact. The BBC was flourishing under its first director John Reith. And John began to think about wireless pictures.

He argued that if it was possible to hear by wireless, it must be possible to see by wireless. And that was the start of it all.

Undoubtedly, it was his dogged determination against all odds that was instrumental in building television into the great industry it is today.


Pioneering an electronic wonder— colour television. This is John Logie Baird at work in his laboratory complex of wires, cables and cameras in 1943. Left, Baird has a look of intense concentration as a young actress checks her elaborate hairstyle and a technician adjusts a camera mounting. The result of this particular experiment was the picture, above, of the girl as it appeared on the screen. Below left, gently does it as Baird, wearing protective gloves, carefully works on a cathode ray tube. The stony figure at centre in the picture, below right, is a dummy standing in for a performer which Baird and his technician used in another experiment


He believed in the future of television — and no matter how bad things became, he refused to give up.

All the money he’d managed to put by was soon used up financing his wartime experiments. Although his health was rapidly deteriorating, and his savings dwindling, he drove himself mercilessly in his private laboratory at our Sydenham home.

He employed two assistants to help him and paid their salaries out of his own pocket. The three of them worked day and night throughout the blitz experimenting in colour and three-dimensional television, an idea which never caught on.

John shut himself away in his beloved laboratory, totally oblivious of time, meals, the weather or his family.

Like so many absent-minded scientists, he loathed the idea of screwing every penny out of unwilling businessmen for his research. Just as he hated the paraphernalia which surrounds big business. He wouldn’t even attend a board meeting of his own company if he could find a way out of it.

John didn’t seem to care that others were getting rich on his inventions. He always had a total disregard for money.

For instance, I well remember the day he turned down an offer of £3,000-worth of Baird TV shares early in the 1930s. When I pleaded with him to change his mind, if only as a small nest-egg for our children’s future, he patiently explained: “I’m an inventor, Margaret, not a city broker.”

As usual, I could see there was no point in arguing. John was a stubborn man. And I knew his stringent upbringing — he was the son of a Scottish minister — had given him a phobia about gambling in any form — including the stock market.

But you can imagine how peeved I felt a year later when the shares soared, and the man who offered to sell out to us made a small fortune.

This incident still rankled me yean after. When war was declared in 1939 and the Baird TV Company was forced into liquidation, leaving us virtually broke, that £10,000 or so would have come in very handy to pay for the children’s school fees and the mounting, unpaid domestic bills.

Yet underneath these minor irritations, I admired my husband’s tremendous strength of mind. He never swerved from what he believed in, never compromised. And I admit I found his dominant personality one of his greatest attractions.

You’ll have gathered by now that my husband was no ordinary man. Looking back, I suppose our whole relationship could be thought somewhat eccentric.

I first met John at his Long Acre Studios, close by Covent Garden, London, in 1930. I was 23, fresh from South Africa with a burning ambition to become a famous concert pianist. All the young artists were talking about television, so when a friend was booked to sing at the Baird Studios, and asked me to play for him, I was thrilled to accept.

The Baird Company had secured an experimental licence from the Post Office to transmit after BBC programmes closed down.

We arrived at Long Acre at midnight and after our performance, somebody whispered in an awed tone: “Here comes Mr. Baird, the inventor.”

Away from the cares of pioneering television, John Logie Baird and his wife holiday by the sea

My first impression of John was of a handsome absent-minded scientist, fixing me with blue, penetrating eyes. Years later, he confided he didn’t even single me out from the scores of young artists he met at his studio.

That happened a year later when a mutual friend was invited to tea at John’s house, and asked me to go along.

After that meeting, he telephoned a friend and said: “I’m going to marry this young woman!”

I can still recall that scorching August afternoon, sitting on the lawn with the tall, blond Scotsman. I can picture his dreamy cornflower-blue eyes and hear the occasional outbursts of hilarity and, sometimes, vulgar language which never failed to shock people throughout our lives.

After tea he told me of an old spinet in the attic and invited me to try it. He beamed as I tinkled the yellowed keys, and said: “You’ve got more out of that old thing than anyone else who tried it”

Much later, I learned he was tone deaf and didn’t know one note from another. I also discovered there had been carloads of young ladies entertained to dinner at his home. But I gathered I was the first woman he’d ever fancied settling down with!

I was soon aware of John’s indifference to money, which was to lead to later incidents like the passing up of the Baird shares. Even in those early days, John frittered away money on hired cars and expensive meals.

More often than not, he squired me around the countryside in a chauffeur-driven, black Daimler.

The difference in our ages — John was 18 years older than I — never bothered us. He was very young for his years and I fancied myself a worldly person.

Our opposite natures helped to stimulate the great attraction we felt for each other. He, the gentle dreamer and forgetful scientist who lived for his work. Me, down to earth and capable, with a shrewd business acumen, inherited from my father who was a diamond prospector.

By today’s standards, our courtship was rather a bizarre affair. But — take it from me — it had nothing on our wedding.

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono recently tickled the world’s fancy as they jet-wedded in Gibraltar, then honeymooned in bed in Paris, I couldn’t help thinking what the straight-laced world of the thirties would have thought if they had been able to witness our wedding on the telly.


Colour TV today works on similar principles to black and white except that three cameras (which are mounted together) and three sets of electronic circuits are needed. That is why colour receivers are bulkier and more expensive. Although light from the scene being televised is a mixture of all the colours in the rainbow, colour TV concerns itself only with three— red, green and blue. By filtering and juggling with these electronically, multi-coloured pictures can be re-created on the screen. One camera and set of circuits deals with each colour. The picture tube in the home has three electron ‘guns’, each firing electrons at the back of the screen in response to the appropriate colour signal. The screen is coated with thousands of clusters of tiny dots of phosphor. Some of the dots give off red light when struck, some green, some blue. To ensure that the right dots are hit at the right time (to produce the right blend of colours) the electrons are aimed through a “shadow mask”—a metal plate accurately perforated with 440,000 tiny holes.


You see, we spent our honeymoon in bed, too, but for slightly different reasons from the Lennons. And don’t ever talk to me about John and Yoko getting spliced in white tennis shoes. John Logie Baird repeated his vows in bedroom slippers!

Our wedding happened like this…

John had tired of the BBC monopoly, and, seeking freedom, he sailed for America with his secretary Walter Knight to try to obtain a wave-length for television in the States.

To his surprise, he was met in New York by Mayor Walker, together with a Scots Pipe Band and a full police escort which preceded his car to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

There, he was bombarded by a succession of “big business men,” complete with illicit liquor, ready-made contracts and instant lawyers. John sent me two postcards in which he complained of feeling “cut off,” as he put it. A couple of weeks later he telephoned me, begging me to take the next ship to New York and marry him. He cut short my dithering in a most unromantic way.

“Look here, Margaret,” he said, “this phone call is costing me a pound a minute. Will you please make up your mind quickly!”

We were married on Friday, November 13, 1931, in John’s hotel bedroom in Coney Island. He’d gone down with a nasty bout of flu and escaped to the island to avoid the rush of New York. Then Walter rang up a local Justice of the Peace and dashed out to buy me a wedding ring. John had forgotten all about that. He returned with an outsize gold band the size of a curtain ring. John was quite unperturbed by the fuss.

He struggled out of bed into a dressing-gown and slippers for just long enough to tie the nuptial knot.

For the record, I spent my wedding night and four-day honeymoon filling hot water bottles!

I’ve still got the pictures of our wedding reception at the Waldorf Astoria. John and I are seated at the head of horseshoe table bedecked with flowers and bootleg champagne. We’re surrounded by scores of guests I’ve never seen since.

Men in double-breasted, pin-stripe suits with scars on their faces, accompanied by women sporting peroxided hair and plunging necklines. These were actually the businessmen John hoped would get him an independent wavelength.

Three weeks later, we went to Washington where John’s application for a television licence was granted at the Federal Court.

We set sail for England in jubilant spirits, only to hear on our arrival, that the application had been squashed after we left. One of the powerful American companies had objected to a British firm operating in the States.

Soon afterwards the Baird Company’s New York office closed down, never to re-open.

This was my first bitter taste of defeat. In the years that followed, I came to feel I’d married a man who was doomed to public failure.

After all, John invented television. But he never received any public credit or accolades for his achievements. Neither did he live to see his work and dreams fulfilled.

Coinciding with the introduction of colour television on ITV and BBC1 there has recently been a sudden surge of interest in his work. Plaques have been fixed to the houses where he lived, and streets have been named after him.

But none of this makes up for the lonely, unrewarding years he spent pioneering the invention.

Part II: Married life with an eccentric inventor; his greatest achievements; the first pictures.

Your comment

Enter it below