He created television – but couldn’t mend a fuse 

15 August 2017 tbs.pm/13027

◀︎ PART I

From the TVTimes for 22-28 November 1969 – the week after the major ITV regions went colour

John Logie Baird, Inventor – Part 2

Mrs Margaret Baird

Moving to a country where there is no television would practically mean taking up a new way of life for most of us. But can you imagine the effect this had on the woman who spent 15 years sharing the innermost secrets of the man known as the father of television? This is the life, today, of Margaret Baird, widow of John Logie Baird, who not only foresaw colour TV, but was working in it 30 years ago. In the second part of her story about her brilliant husband, she tells of married life with “an absent-minded inventor”

My husband’s restless brain was always searching for something new in television. In the Thirties he made elaborate plans for outsize television screens. Were he alive today he would be surprised to find that the screens are still so small.

He would also be surprised that in my native South Africa, where I now live, there is no television at all. And after being married for 15 years to the man who had invented and pioneered TV, I found life very strange when I returned to Cape Town in 1958. At first I just couldn’t settle in a silent house, bereft of John, my children, and now without the “box.”

After all, I wasn’t used to owning just one television set. There were receivers and wires festooned around every room in our old home in Sydenham.

People today jokingly call television “the goggle box” and desperate parents even warn their children of a “new disease” called “square-eyes” if they watch too much television.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine an everyday television screen being anything, but square.

The first primitive receivers that littered our home almost 40 years ago were long, narrow contraptions, measuring approximately 15in. wide by 18in. deep. The scanning went across a 30-line system which produced a very coarse picture by today’s sophisticated standards but it was marvellous to receive any picture at all. In fact, I spent so much time watching John’s test pictures it’s a wonder I didn’t end up with “oblong-eyes.”

Years before I met him, John’s ambition was to transmit direct from one of the lofty towers in the Crystal Palace; and perhaps, even breaking the BBC’s monopoly by setting up an independent station there.

Sure enough, shortly after we had moved into that great barn of a house in 1933, which overlooked Crystal Palace, John managed to rent the West Tower. He never won his battle with the BBC, but some of his most vital work was done while we lived there.

I can’t recall that I immediately liked his idea of living virtually on top of a radio station. Neither was I thrilled with the dilapidated mansion he had chosen for our home, because by then I had a baby daughter, Diana, as well as an absent-minded husband to look after and I was quite content with our snug, furnished flat in Hampstcad.

“We can’t live in that broken-down barn,” I wailed, when John first introduced the idea. “What are we going to use for furniture? And how will we keep it warm?”

Margaret once wanted to be a concert pianist. Then she met John Logie Baird

But he cut short my tears in his usual, down-to-earth way: “Buy the best quality carpet and close-fit the entire house. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t any furniture, at least the place will be warm and look lived in.” His parting shot shook me rigid. “By the way, Margaret, we’re moving next week, so you’d better get a move on! ”

That was that. And as usual, John had his own way.

I spent the next weeks feverishly buying huge pieces of furniture from auction rooms, in a desperate attempt to fill the place.

John meanwhile converted the monstrous, stone-floored kitchens into store-rooms for his apparatus and the vast scullery area became his laboratory. I used the butler’s pantry as my kitchen.

Soon, I had to admit that the place had possibilities.

A few week later John commandeered the breakfast room as his study and dipped into our meagre savings to buy a large roll-top desk. He never ever used that desk. Instead his so-called “filing system” became the family joke.

At first he balanced piles of papers on the carved mantelpiece. By degrees they overflowed on to the study floor, until he was knee-deep in blueprints, scribbled notes on scraps of paper, plus endless logs of experiments, sheafs of bills and receipts.

Eventually, he fixed a lock to the study door and nobody was allowed to enter. John worked there happily for the next 15 years.

When he was at home, John commuted between his study and the laboratory and occasionally invited me in to witness some new and (to me) incomprehensible experiment, which took place surrounded by mysterious, grey-painted equipment.

Wires, like sinister snakes, coiled from the ceiling to floor, and there were many sharp warnings like: “Don’t put your foot in that!” “Be careful of that wire, or you’ll be electrocuted.”

The rest of his time was spent in his laboratories in 33 Long Acre, near Covent Garden.

 


Almost 25 years ago, Logie Baird had invented the “Telechrome”, (top right), which showed a three-dimensional, colour picture. The first 30-line picture (top left), was produced about 1928 and, (bottom left), Baird’s first signal from Station TV-2. Bottom right, raising 2-TV’s first mast aerial back in 1931


 

When we were first married his secretary would ring me promptly at six o’clock to say he was on his way home and that was my cue to prepare dinner. At last I accepted the inevitable pattern of subsequent phone calls saying: “He’s on his way.” Or: “He’ll be home in half-an-hour.” Usually the food had sizzled away to ashes before he arrived.

John rarely gave me presents. But I remember one night, when he was exceptionally late, he handed me a brown paper bag filled with plum stones with one, soggy plum buried at the bottom. “I’ve bought you some fruit,” he beamed. But he had forgotten they were for me and had eaten them all himself on the taxi drive home.

He wasn’t very helpful around the house either. For instance, could you believe that the inventor of television couldn’t even mend a fuse?

I discovered this early on when we were staying at an hotel at Worthing. John was ill and to keep warm he switched on the electric fire and the electric blanket… and fused the lot. To my astonishment, he just lay in bed yelling instructions, while I perched on a chair fumbling in the fuse box.

That was typical of my John. He had no hobbies and no interests apart from his work. As for me — I wouldn’t have swapped my odd set-up for anything.

It was at Long Acre that some of the most dramatic advances in television were made. By 1927 he had dreamed up “Noctovision,” a complex system using infra-red rays to obtain a picture. He demonstrated this device to the British Association in Leeds and, as a result, a television set was installed for Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in Downing Street.

John surged on. He experimented with photo-electric cells, then spot-light scanning and soon he completely discarded the old method of floodlighting the image to get a picture. Each success was a step nearer the sophisticated synchronised picture we take so much for granted today.

Then, just before I married him, in 1931, the Post Office issued the Baird Company with an experimental licence, known as 2-TV… the very first television licence in the world.

It is ironical these days when people often begrudge the cost of an annual television licence, because to John, that scrap of paper was the start of an era. It was official recognition that television was really here to stay.

This, then, was the peak of his career. In the years that followed he produced a picture that equals anything we see today. He pioneered colour television and predicted events like Eurovision and Independent Television.

But sadly, all these turned out to be just personal successes, because he never received any public acclamation. As the years passed, I know he never recaptured the carefree creative days of the Twenties.

Sometimes we would forget the pressures of work and spend an idyllic weekend at Bexhill-on-Sea, where we’d stroll along the deserted beach talking and laughing. Sometimes John made notes in a small, black book as we walked along. These were the only times he every really relaxed. He relapsed into his favourite pastime of creating vivid word pictures of his youth and early experiments for me.

Listening to him, it was easy for me to turn back the clock 20 years and see the young, penniless inventor clad in a threadbare “reach-me-down” suit.

 


John Logie Baird in 1917


 

Best of all I loved the story of that momentous day, in January, 1924, when he successfully transmitted his first television picture. His blue eyes twinkled as he described the rented room in Queens Arcade, Hastings, in which he conducted that experiment.

It began when he hit on the idea of buying hundreds of small batteries, which he patiently strung together across the room to produce a 2,000-volt thrust. Next, he cut the lid off a circular hat-box and, using selenium light cells, produced a crude, electrically-driven, spiral-holed disc.

After several nasty mishaps and explosions, John succeeded in transmitting a shadow picture of a dummy’s head from one end of his workshop to the other.

“That was the greatest moment of my life, Margaret,” he told me proudly, and squeezed my hand in a rare show of affection.

A day out at the zoo. Inventor extraordinary, John Logie Baird took time off from his laboratory experiments to give his wife Margaret this welcome break from routine

For the next seven years, until we met, he lived, ate and slept, television. His revolutionary experiments soon aroused tremendous interest and it wasn’t long before the Baird Television Company was formed with an initial capital of £150,000. The days of shabby suits were gone for ever. John came to London as a company director and soon he and his staff were working day and night, often sleeping on the floor of the famous Long Acre studios.

Television became a magic word in the depression-torn Thirties. Once it caught on it spelt a vital flow of big, new business which soon aroused speculation in the city and, overnight, a golden trail of prospective investors appeared on the scene. At last optimistic conjecture became reality and there was fresh hope of jobs for thousands of unemployed, as well as much talk of the money-spinning potential of overseas contracts.

It wasn’t long before John was completely out of his depth. He had absolutely no head for business and his invention was subtly removed from his grasp by far-sighted manipulators who lost no time exalting it to the dizzy realms of high finance.

Everyone knows the standard cliche about how inventors have their heads permanently in the clouds. John was, unfortunately, no exception. I’ve already explained that he preferred to shut himself away in his lab, and leave other more astute men to get rich via the boardroom.

For a time he toyed with the world of big business. He was forced to learn about contracts and board meetings, so he tried to make the best of things. But he soon hated every moment of it.

Unhappily, John could never really be anything other than the absent-minded scientist and was baffled by everything unrelated to blueprints and “boffin-talk.”

This naive, often stubborn attitude to business had unhappy consequences for us. John dogmatically turned his back on fruitful business relationships. Contracts he might have had went elsewhere.

I suppose 1936 proved to be the most bitter-sweet year of our marriage. There were, of course, the red-letter happenings like our fairytale trip to Australia and the birth of our son, Malcolm. But apart from these, life was not happy.

That was the year during which John’s business fortunes escalated, then dropped to rock bottom, when Marconi E.M.I. set up in opposition to the Baird Company. Soon they were openly vying for the coveted BBC TV contract. By the end of the year they had won the battle and the Baird system was ditched.

This not only cost John a fortune, but it also lost him a place in history.

By that, I simply mean, if you asked today’s teenagers who was the original inventor of television, I wonder how many would even have heard of John Logie Baird.

At times like these, John turned to his family for comfort. Once he told me that we were his “safety valve.” He felt things very deeply, but he was one of those unfortunate people who have no outward way of suffering. Instead, he would hide his emotions behind a barrage of chatter. He would spend more time with the children, romping with them and telling them stories. Sometimes, we would laze over a picnic tea in the garden.

But I could see the signs of strain. He became tired. I often found him resting on his bed, one hand holding the telephone, so that he could be in constant touch with his technicians. His face lost its boyish look. Deep lines crept round his eyes and across his forehead.

Yet his restless brain could never accept defeat. No amount of setbacks and disappointments throughout his life ever altered his fundamental love for television. It was his brain-child, his baby. He fathered and fostered it and he could never stop making plans for its future.

I knew and understood his feelings. So I suppose it is only natural that I still shudder with an awful sympathy when I recall that night, in November, 1936, when the Crystal Palace burned down.

I remember the scene vividly. We’d just sat down to dinner when a man rushed into the house shouting: “Fire!”

At first we thought our house was on fire. John, white-faced, jumped up from the table and dashed for the front door. There was a slight pause, before he gasped: “My God, Margaret, it’s the Crystal Palace.” Then he ran off into the night. He was so overwrought he didn’t even think to change out of his bedroom slippers.

I stood by the window for a long time watching the huge blaze light up the sky. I felt too stunned to move. It was as if the Baird Company was haunted by an evil spirit which was hellbent on destroying everything we had ever worked for.

At last John returned. He slumped in his chair and covered his face with his hands.

In a broken voice he told me the road was completely blocked with fire engines, cars and people. “I couldn’t get near the place,” he whispered. Then he looked at me. “All those years of research lost in a few moments. I can’t bear it, Margaret.”

It was true. The now ill-fated Baird Company lost hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of apparatus and all its priceless television blueprints.

But soon, John managed to baffle me, again, with that unique ability of his, to bob back like the proverbial cork. Within days he had recovered sufficiently from the shock of that disaster to become excited by an invitation to represent Britain at a great radio convention in Australia.

Once again his familiar Scottish shrewdness surfaced. “I’ll have to foot the bill if you come. Mind you, it would be nice to have you with me,” he added tactfully, “but if I were to take another director, the firm would pay his expenses.” He debated this issue for a while, but in the end he relented and “did the decent thing!”

A three-month trip to Australia was just what my sagging spirits needed. The day we set sail from Tilbury aboard the liner Strathaird, I knew this was to be the holiday of a lifetime.

And so it was.

Undoubtedly, the star turn was a dinner given in our honour by the Maharajah of Kutch, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay. He wanted to discuss the possibilities of bringing television to India.

Typically, John had forgotten to tell me to pack anything lavish. I had no idea we were to be wined and dined at every port, so my wardrobe was scant to say the least. I had the time of my life buying new clothes in Bombay and I chose an exquisite white chiffon dress to wear to my fairy-tale dinner.

A chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce collected us from the ship and drove us along the narrow, humid streets. Our reception at the floodlit hotel fairly took my breath away. The Maharajah led us into a splendid white-and-gold dining room, where the table was laid for endless exotic courses and decorated with gold bowls filled with tropical flowers. I felt like a queen, especially as I was the only woman out of 20 guests. For the first time in months John was in top form and we dined, talked and drank champagne, far into the wonderful night.

From then on our timetable positively brimmed with dinners and functions. We travelled via Perth and Adelaide to Sydney. John was most impressed with the Australian Broadcasting Company and the many, smaller independent stations. He told me this was the ideal set-up and once more longed for Britain to get some healthy competition for the BBC.

Although the heat was overpowering, John stormed on like a steam engine. I’d never seen him look so well. Later I was to learn that he was suffering from Arterio Sclerosis, a gradual hardening of the arteries. This meant he didn’t feel the heat — only the cold.

THE grand finale of the tour came at Sydney University Hall where John made his speech and, once more he managed to surprise me. He turned out to be a born orator and completely captivated his audience with an amusing lecture.

Back on board, John said this trip was the peak of our lives together and he bought me a beautiful aquamarine-and-diamond ring when we docked at Ceylon on the return trip.

The memories of those magical days were to sustain me through the utter desolation of the years that followed.

 


With his apparatus John Logie Baird gave his first demonstration of television at London’s Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1926. A year earlier he had transmitted a picture of this head in his first successful experiment.


 

To tide itself on, the Baird Company had been fitting out Gaumont-British cinemas with large television screens. But shortly after our return to England war was declared.

Suddenly every order was cancelled. The BBC stopped all television transmissions and John’s company went into liquidation. To cap it all, John’s contract ended.

The very next day, he sent me and the children off to Cornwall, He insisted on staying behind to continue his experiments in colour television.

My one consolation about the whole dreadful business was that the children loved the deserted beaches in Cornwall. “This is a marvellous war, Mum,” they kept saying.

They had no idea that their father was ruined…

Away from his experiments, Baird and family beside the sea

The war dispersed all our old friends. Apart from a questionnaire from Lord Hankey who was attached to the Privy Council Office, asking for John’s opinions on the future of television, John Logie Baird was completely forgotten.

John died on June 14, 1946, with hardly a penny to his name. His savings had been used up on his wartime experiments and, although he was the central figure in the birth of television, he wasn’t even invited to the screening of the Victory Parade.

Yet even if he had lived, I very much doubt if he’d have felt bitter about the way things turned out. Now I can accept the fact he just wasn’t like that.

My only lasting regret is that he didn’t live to see his dreams for television come true.

For it was this man’s dearest wish that everyone, all over the world, would one day be able to watch the programme of their choice, in colour if they wished.

And that, more than anything, mankind would come to take John Logie Baird’s invention as an accepted part of its way of life…

You Say

3 responses to this article

Paul Mason 19 August 2017 at 9:21 pm

I remember a picture of Margaret Baird with a TV set when TV finally came to South Africa in 1976.

Also there were Baird TV sets up to the 1970s as we had three of them so JLB must have started a final company up before 1946.

Russ J Graham 20 August 2017 at 1:26 pm

Television sets with the brand name “Baird” were just a brand name (possibly licensed from JLB’s estate, I can’t tell from the sources here) used by Radio Rentals. The sets themselves were Ferguson, rebadged by Thorn-EMI. Ferguson were sold to a Chinese company many years ago, but the brand is now licensed (or just used by, as above) Brighthouse, a firm that sells white goods on a high-APR weekly cash instalment plan to people who can’t get credit.

Paul Mason 20 August 2017 at 3:38 pm

We rented TVs from Radio Rentals from 1958 until the end of the century (by which time the agreement was in my name). RR became Box Clever but the local branches in Liverpool closed hence I bought the video/TV for a reduced price.
But our early TVs introduced us to the name of Baird.

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