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Was this really the first human face captured on television?

The inventor John Logie Baird.

Chapter Six: Television, Fame and New Discoveries

When his family in Scotland discovered the conditions that John Logie Baird had been living in, they responded by purchasing £500.00 worth of shares in the little known company now formed and known as Television, Ltd. Baird immediately set about remodelling his apparatus and improving its optical system. The effect of this rendered the transmitted images more sharply than ever before but still with no detail. On the evening of 1st October 1925 Baird concluded a series of tests using the latest light-sensitive system that he had devised. The following morning, October 2nd 1925, was spent fitting the device and generally overhauling the equipment. Early on this Friday afternoon he placed “Bill” in front of the transmitter. Bill, was a rather dilapidated ventriloquist’s doll that Baird had been using for many months in his experiments. Normally the dolls head came through on the receiving screen as a white blob with three black blobs marking the position of the nose and eyes. But on this occasion Bill suddenly appeared as a recognisable image, with shading and detail. The nose, eyes and eyebrows could be distinguished and the top of the head appeared rounded. In his autobiography, Baird described this historic occasion: “The image of the dummy's head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to be almost unbelievable clarity.”

Bill in front of the scanning disc.Flushed with success, Baird rushed downstairs where he came across William Taynton, a young office boy working on the floor below. In a flood of excited broad Scotch, Baird convinced the office boy to go upstairs and sit before the transmitter where enormous electric lamps gave out a glaring light and a great deal of heat. Baird rushed to the next room to see the results on his receiver but was dismayed to discover that it was entirely blank. No amount of adjusting the equipment would produce a picture, and a crest-fallen Baird went back to the transmitter. Under the intense heat, Taynton had moved away from the lamps and had moved out of focus. In what Baird described as “the excitement of the moment” he gave the boy half-a-crown (12½p) and explained that he must remain exactly where placed. This time Taynton’s image appeared on the receiving screen.

This is the often-reported story of how Baird first came to televise a living person for the first time, and accordingly, Taynton has gone down in history as the first person to appear on television. It’s the ‘official’ version that Baird supported himself and as such offers a neatly romantic tale for the history books. However, if we are to believe that Baird had in fact achieved television transmission years before this, then we may begin to suspect that this version of events was merely part of another smokescreen that Baird created in order to safeguard the secrets of his work. Through the years many have disputed the accepted version of events. John Hart, who had been one of Baird’s helpers, always claimed that he was the first man to be televised. A doorman at a London club claimed for years that he was first, and in 1951, at the unveiling of a plaque to Baird at 22 Frith Street, a Mr J. E. Hamelford showed the assembled party a letter, written and signed by Baird (since proved to be genuine), saying that Hamelford was the first person to be televised.

Following several months of experiments in which Baird claimed he was ensuring that the result he had achieved was stable and not a freak of chance, he demonstrated his apparatus to a correspondent of the 'Evening Standard' (on 7th January 1926) where he ‘televised’ the face of one of his partners in Television, Ltd., Captain Oliver George Hutchinson.

Later in the month Baird issued his now historic invitation to the members of the Royal Institute of Great Britain to a demonstration of his equipment. On the 27th January 1926 nearly fifty scientists duly attended the attics of 22 Frith Street, entering Baird’s accommodation in batches of half a dozen at a time. This was the first public demonstration of true television anywhere in the world. Before 27th January 1926 nothing but the transmission of simple outlines and silhouettes had ever been demonstrated in any country.

Tiltman recorded: "When news reached the USA of Baird’s achievement ’Radio News’, one of the country’s foremost journals, sent a commissioner to investigate. In their issue of September 1926 an article appeared that included the following paragraph:

“Mr Baird has definitely and indisputably given a demonstration of real television. It is the first time in history that this has been done in any part of the world.” Furthermore, in an article on television in the 'New York Times' of 6th March 1927, reference was made to the fact that “no one but this Scotch minister’s son had ever transmitted and received a recognisable image with its graduations of light and shade.” While an editorial in the same paper for 11th February 1928 we see: “Baird was the first to achieve television.”

With Hutchinson introducing new capital into Baird’s venture, and the money from his family in Scotland, the inventor was able to move, in February 1926, into larger premises at Motograph House near Leicester Square. It was only now that Baird knew the ‘luxury’ of employing his own staff. William Taynton was employed as his office boy and towards the end of the year a Mr. Clapp was taken on as his first technical assistant. Steady research now led to gradually improved results and as Baird worked towards turning his apparatus into a commercial success he began to achieve results with the use of normal lighting.

Tiltman recorded the technical detail: "At this time it occurred to him that he was dealing not with the human eye in his apparatus but with a sensitive electric one which might detect rays outside the comparatively limited range of human eyesight. First he experimented with ultra-violet rays, but they proved unsatisfactory owing to the unpleasant effect on the skin and eyes of those being transmitted. They also had little penetration power, being quickly absorbed after passing through the air. Baird then turned his attention to the other end of the spectrum, outside the range of the human eye –infra-red. The system worked perfectly, and Baird was able to dispense with visible light altogether to produce another amazing development."

Baird demonstrates his Noctovisor.Baird again issued an invitation to members of the Royal Institution, and in December 1926 about forty of them went to his laboratory to witness tests of this new discovery that the inventor christened “Noctovision”. Ronald Tiltman wrote: "It was discovered quite by accident that these inra-red rays had valuable fog-penetration powers. In a demonstration of television a certain press representative noticed the smoke curling upwards from a cigarette as viewed on the screen. When he called to see Noctovision demonstrated he asked for a cigarette to be smoked and it was found that the rising smoke was invisible." That, at least, was the official public version. But could this be the same system Baird had been working so secretly on in 1923, which William Loxdale had remembered? (See Chapter 4).

The first public indication of this “latest” development was reported in a news item on 19th February 1927, which said; “On a suitable night we shall have an aeroplane flying overhead and pick it up on this apparatus.” The article went on to add that several governments were interested in this latest discovery and they included Britain, America, France and Germany. Sporadic reports appeared on Baird’s Noctovision although they singularly failed to capture the imagination of the public. By the 1930’s references to it stopped altogether.

Baird’s success and growing reputation caused his contemporaries to redouble their efforts. In April 1927 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company staged the first television demonstration over any distance outside of England. Images were sent by wire for a distance of 200 miles between Washington and New York. The demonstration was staged amid great publicity and elaboration and occupied the services of about 1000 engineers. Baird made no comment on the American test but the following month he arranged his own demonstration when pictures were transmitted over the 438 miles of telephone line between London and Glasgow.

A few frames from the first phonovision disc.The sound made by Baird’s images always fascinated him. He claimed that he could distinguish between a cabbage or a face, a moving or a still image, simply by the sound it made. This led to his recording the signals with a needle cutting into a wax disc responding to signals from the microphone. In October 1926 Baird applied for British patent No. 289,104. In January 1927 he applied for a second patent No. 292,632 to provide for metal discs. He planned to later market these recordings and called his invention Phonovision. A few of the discs that Baird made still survive and are a unique record of early television footage.

On 27th September the world’s first television association was formed. The Television Society of Great Britain was founded to “further the development of problems associated with television, noctovision, phonovision and allied subjects.” By now Baird was operating 2.T.V., the world’s first television transmitting station between Motograph House and a receiving station at “Green Gables” Harrow. Also by the end of the year Ronald F. Tiltman was approached by a group of businessmen to organise and control the publication of the world’s first television journal. Quite simply titled “Television” the first issue came out in March 1928 priced 6d. Although 1927 seemed to be a good year for Baird and the future development of television, the autumn of 1928 saw the beginning of a year of strife, which would place Baird’s achievements before the public. The inventor would face a number of lies, half-truths and criticisms in the very country that should have been singing his praises.

Chapter Seven: The BBC and John Reith

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Article: Research: "Baird of Television" written by Ronald F. Tiltman
"The Secret Life of John Logie Baird" by Tom McArthur and Peter Waddell.
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