Son of Manse — Inventor of Television

John Logie Baird
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1929 Baird-pic-w"MY earliest memory of him dates back to 1938 in the garden at our house in Sydenham, South-East London.

"He was muffled in an overcoat and scarf— he always felt the cold."

Professor Malcolm Baird is speaking fondly about his father, inventor John Logie Baird who, perhaps along with Alexander Fleming, was one of the most famous Scots who ever lived.

"After the outbreak of war in 1939 the family moved to Cornwall but my father continued his research in London.

"My sister Diana and I were just young children at the time and we looked forward to his visits every few weeks when he could come down. He would take us for long, slow walks along the beach again, all muffled up against the cold winds.

"Then, later at night, he would tell us bedtime stories about two flies called Izzie and Dizzie who lived in uncomfortable lodgings — in retrospect perhaps a throwback to his early years.

"He would teach me how to do optical experiments with a magnifying glass — for example how to form a small image of a person on a sheet of white paper and how to use the glass to project an enlarged image on to a wall.

"Like a typical child though, I was far more interested in the idea of setting fire to the paper by focusing the sun's rays on it!"

John Logie Baird was born in August 1888 in Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland.

His father, the Rev John Baird, was minister at the nearby West (later St Bride's) parish church and his mother, Jessie, came from a shipbuilding family in Glasgow.

John was the youngest of four children and at the age of two, developed a serious abdominal condition and his life was in the balance for a few days.

Though he recovered, he remained a delicate child, and was always prone to coughs, chills and gastric trouble.

"It was this weakness that prevented him from undertaking military service in the First World War and it remained with him for the rest of his life," says Malcolm.

"He was often confined to bed with flu-like symptoms. He always had a great fondness for warm climates and I remember one of the highlights of his life came in 1938 when he and my mother were invited on a VIP trip to Australia, via a long sea cruise through the Suez Canal, Aden and India, etc!

"My father's memoirs describe his early experience of growing up in an extremely religious household. He was a sensitive and imaginative child and would often suffer from nightmares based on the 'hellfire' sermons his father preached.

"But from an early age too, he was interested in scientific progress. His mother would give him books about electricity, and as a teenager, he loved the stories of H.G.Wells.

“He became influenced by some of the ideas Wells considered, not just in relation to science, but on religion too. In his own quiet way, I would call him a 'freethinker’."

In spite of this, Malcolm says there appeared to be no great problems between profoundly religious father and scientifically-orientated son.

"There is nothing on record of any serious confrontations between father and son," he says, "though perhaps this could be attributed to the undoubtedly moderating influence of Jessie, whom my father later described as 'a saint'.

"My grandfather appeared to accept the situation, and arranged for John to pursue his scientific interests and attend the West of Scotland Technical College (now the University of Strathclyde) where he qualified in electrical engineering in 1914.

"In fact, when my father started serious, but unpaid research work on television a few years later, his father would send him cheques to help him out financially.

"He worked hard taking out 177 patents from 1923 onwards. This was at a time when the cost of patenting an idea was relatively cheap.

“His first patents were for a mechanical scanning device to convert an optical image to an electric signal; later ones were on electronic systems to produce images in colour and in 3D or on large screens!

“My father really enjoyed the role of inventor and was always thinking about how to create and innovate things.

"Part of his ambition was that of 'pure achievement' and he owed that to the protestant work ethic and his Christian family background.

“He was also influenced of course, by the Victorian ideal of worldly success; after all, even the scientific romantic H.G.Wells included worldly success as a 'desirable aim'.

"The first demonstration of television came in 1926 and afterwards my father formed a small company, simply called 'Television Limited' because there were no other television companies on the scene.

“That didn't last for long though, and as the competition increased, he incorporated the Baird name in the title.

"By 1928 my father was a successful man. He married my mother, Margaret, in 1931 and in 1932 my sister Diana was born. I followed in July 1935.

"Between 1931 and 1939, Baird Television was a major player — and my father was earning around €4,000 a year.

"Baird Television was taken over by Gaumont British Pictures Ltd, and they paid him a handsome salary while allowing him to continue his research in a small but well-equipped lab attached to our home in Sydenham.

“My sister and I were young children and we weren't really supposed to go into the lab because of the high voltages in there, but I do remember seeing colour television in 1945.

“My dad tried to get the BBC to move to colour after the war, but they didn't make the jump until the late 60s.

"There was always talk of television in the house though strangely, we didn't have a set of our own until 1952!

"Sadly, the Second World War put paid to any further research, and television was shut down after the outbreak in 1939.

"My father's income was completely cut off by the war, but he decided to use savings in order to continue his research.

"The research had great potential, but there was no-one willing or able to continue it after 1946, when he died in his sleep.

"His memorial service at St Saviour's Church in Walton Street in London, was attended by many senior people from the television industry.

“I think it was possibly only then that I had some realisation of the importance of my father's work. He couldn't patent television itself as it is created by a number of processes.

“The only financial regrets he ever had were in not accepting offers for the business in the days when it was hitting the headlines, like tv across the Atlantic in 1928 and big screen tv in cinemas, in 1930.

"Post-war, it took around ten years for any form of mass market television to appear.

"I think, had my father lived longer, that he would have continued to play a major part in the television industry, in the independent sector particularly, but sadly, he didn't get the chance.

"I was11 when he died. After his death, our family went through a very tough time, and my mother had a breakdown.

"My sister Diana and I owe a huge debt to my father's sister, Annie, and her housekeeper Margaret Scott. They looked after us back in Helensburgh while we finished our education.

"From 1947 onwards we lived in Helensburgh at 'The Lodge', the house where my father had been born in 1888.

"As a teenager in Helensburgh, I was also interested in electronics and chemistry — and it was suggested I go into television, but I felt my father would be a tough act to follow, so I went ahead with applied chemistry which merged later into chemical engineering.

"Following years of wartime restrictions and post-war austerity, it was the time of the 'brain drain' and many of my fellow students at Glasgow University were interested in emigration.

“They came from working class families and they felt it was time to move to broader horizons. I guess it was under this 'peer pressure' that I joined the Canadian subsidiary of ICI at their research labs near Montreal.

"After a few years I moved back to Edinburgh, to a post at Edinburgh University. Though I liked the freedom of university work, the 1960s was not unlike today — a time of financial troubles and government cutbacks, and when I got job offers from booming Canada, I accepted one from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I stayed there for over 30 years until I retired in 2000.

"I too have a few patents out but they're a lot more expensive now than they were in my father's day!

“I've had a rewarding career, but without the dramatic ups and downs that my father experienced.

"In his later life my father's opinions about religion and the after-life softened somewhat. He became interested in spiritualism — though, it must be said, purely in a scientific way.

“During his final illness, after a heart attack in 1946, I understand he had long talks with my mother. He would admit that, as far as an after-life went, we 'simply didn't know what lies ahead.'

"He was a wonderful mixture of inventor, scientist and enthusiast, and, irrespective of how the rest of the world remembers him, he was my father, and I loved him for it."

  • This article by Jackie Macadam, the product of an interview with Helensburgh Heritage Trust president Professor Malcolm Baird, was first published in the October 2015 edition of the magazine Life and Work, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author and the magazine.