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Hawes Mechanical Television Archive by James T. Hawes, AA9DT
Baird Did Not Invent Television, Part 2

Television has many fathers

Thanks to Baird's publicists for supporting this page! What? You deny that Baird has a publicity machine? Just google "Baird television." Baird promotional sites must number in the hundreds. Even Scottish tourism pages now trumpet the Baird myth: So they say, John Baird invented TV, radar, why, even fiber optics. (No, he didn't. But by saying that he did, maybe you can rent a room.)

Promoting legends. By the way, there's nothing wrong with promoting legends. People love to fantasize. When you indulge them, they buy more of what you're selling. If you have a castle, consider your occupancy rate. Insist that you have ghosts. If you own lakefront property, print brochures about visitation by the Loch Ness monster. If you love an inventor, contrive a life story that embellishes and romanticizes his achievements. Of course there's a difference between promotion and history. Promotion is subjective. It attempts to persuade. The best histories are as objective as possible. They strive to convey facts.

            or sleight of hand? Did Baird pull a rabbit (or rabbit ears) from a hat? His 
            publicists ask you to believe.

Baird Tradition of Promotion. You Baird webmasters are following a proud tradition of publicity. You're in great company. Baird himself, ever mindful of the press, started this very tradition. Consider Baird's promotional demonstrations. For example, mechanical color TV, stereoscopic TV and phonovision. None of these so-called "inventions" advanced the art. None of them even went into production. All of them had serious flaws, including a terrible flicker rate. Impractical? Yes! Yet Baird's technical fancies spurred the imagination. As inventions, these demonstrations had little value. But as promotions, the demonstrations were huge.

Baird's publicity stunts attracted press exposure and brought in investment capital. Meanwhile, Baird's successful competitors concentrated on improving the technology. They increased image clarity, resolution and size. They also developed the CRT and television marketing methods. And they stole a march on John Baird. Through these years, Sydney Moseley, a very shrewd PR man, was one of Baird's most loyal supporters. Baird and Moseley could out-promote even many larger rivals. The strategy was bold, clever and often effective. It was one of Baird's greatest, yet least recognized contributions to television. But in the end, the Baird product couldn't outperform or even equal its competition. In 1935, the British postmaster discontinued low-definition television service over Baird's 30-line system. In 1937, the Selsdon Committee decided against Baird's medium-definition service. Instead, Great Britain adopted the 405-line, Marconi-EMI system. The new system was all-electronic television, with its basis in Vladimir Zworkyin's RCA patents.

Writing History. Moseley's renowned Baird biography is only one volume in a stack of pro-Baird books. If you love mechanical television, you must have read a few of these tracts. If you belong to the Baird publicity machine, you might have written a few. Then let's also mention the many museums that promote the blarney about Baird inventing television. It's a compelling yarn, but it isn't true. The theory of Baird apologists, all the way back to the man himself, is this: History is even more powerful if you can write your own. Baird shares this rather Machiavellian theory with another television luminary, David Sarnoff. For both men, publicity was a key to success.

Off the shelf. Baird was a major contributor to television. Yet he used off-the-shelf technology. So did many other "fathers of television" who were Baird's contemporaries. Baird publicist Iain Baird is John Baird's grandson. Iain insists that "television simply did not exist in 1924" and that television didn't evolve. These notions cast scorn on scientists who preceded Baird and supported his success. These notions also assume that television history had a single strand. Untrue. Parallel television technologies existed before, during and after Baird. For example, Baird had little or nothing to do with early developments in picture tubes. Page 1 of this article names many television scientists who came before Baird. That Baird used their work is a recorded fact. What work? For example, such essentials as these: The Nipkow scanner, the Moore lamp, and amplifiers full of de Forest audion tubes.

History vs. dogma. For those who want history and facts instead of dogma, consult our Web site. And read the other pages on this domain. If you doubt any statement, check it in a reputable book on technology history. A true television history has many pages or even entire chapters before Baird shows up. We suggest the books below. One of these books might be in the reference section of your library. Many universities own the books. If your library doesn't, ask your reference librarian to arrange an interlibrary loan.

Resource Links


  • Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1880 to 1941. Jefferson, North Carolina: 1987. Although this book is mainly textual, the story isn't a narrative. Instead it's more of a database. Use the index to take you to an inventor, television station or company. Then read the references on that topic. Throughout the book are historic photographs, including some pages from patents. One of the patents is Paul Nipkow's. Nipkow's 1884 patent #30105 details a complete mechanical television scanning system. Germany granted the patent four years before Baird's birth. Most mechanical television inventions, including Baird's, are improvements on Nipkow's work. The mechanics come from the nineteenth century. The electronics come from the early twentieth century. Both types of parts predate John Baird's television contributions. Abramson's book includes an ample bibliography and glossary.

  • Shiers, George. Early Television: A Bibliographic Guide to 1940. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.: 1997. This isn't a normal annotated bibliography. Read the chapter-heading articles. They're completely fascinating. In fact, they're like a book within a book. Actually Shier's bibliography is a team project. George Shiers compiled the bibliography and May Shiers assisted him. Diana Menkes edited and indexed the book. The project manager was Christopher H. Sterling. The editorial Associate was Elliot N. Sivowitch. Historian Albert Abramson (of the above text) is uncredited, but he provided advice. Shiers died before he finished his book. Sterling and the staff completed it. Tony Bridgewater, an eminent engineer who once assisted John Baird, wrote an excellent foreword. One of Shiers' articles (p. 64) notes that Baird re-patented the Nipkow disc. This alleged patent might be an example of plagiarism.

  • Hallett, Michael. John Logie Baird and Television. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Wayland Publishers Limited: 1978. Very different from the above texts, this book presents Baird's story in superb sharp, historic photos. The book also includes original diagrams, such as the main detail from Paul Nipkow's television scanner patent. (Most people don't know that Nipkow invented far more than just a scanning disc. Nipkow's patent lays out entire mechanical TV scanners for both the TV camera and monitor.) At the end of the book is a diagram of a Baird TV station. The illustration comes from a 1926 issue of the Illustrated London News. The book also offers this parting thought about Baird's contribution: "While it is not true to say that he invented television he was without doubt one of the most striking figures in the story and the part he played was a vital one..." (p. 84)

Cover of Hallett's
       pictorial Baird biography.
  • Dunlap, Orrin E., Jr. The Outlook for Television. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1971. This is a reprint of a famous 1932 book by the New York Times' then radio editor. Here's a quote from page 5: "Television is not the triumph of any one man, but of many. No one can be called the inventor." On page 75, Baird himself admits that repeating telegraphy solved "the sync problem." Page 84 reveals this about noctovision: German television inventor Ernst Ruhmer owned prior patents on infrared television. When Baird discovered this fact, he ended his noctovision research to concentrate on television.

  • Webb, Richard C. Tele-Visionaries: The People Behind the Invention of Television. Hoboken, New Jersey: IEEE Press / John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. Inside story: How RCA developed color television. Easy to read. During the development of color TV, Webb was one of RCA's main design engineers. A technology summary carries us to the 1940s. Webb then goes into detail. Yet he explains technical ideas for laymen with electronic knowledge.

    Here's a quote from page 5: "Actually, the development of television was simply too large an enterprise to have been the sole work of one gifted individual or even an inspired group. You might compare it to the construction of a large jet airplane, which we know would require the talents of a large number of skilled people... In the case of television, however, there was a lengthy preamble of independent and uncoordinated effort undertaken by a great many dedicated scientists and engineers working privately all around the world."

Cover of 
       Tele-Visionaries, Webb's inside story of color TV invention. An IEEE book.
  • Udelson, Joseph H. The Great Television Race: A History of the American Television Industry, 1925-1941. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press: 1982. Paperback version. See review. A scholarly version of television development. Despite the title, the book includes worldwide television developments until the emergence of US television stations. Afterward, the story largely focuses on Farnsworth, Zworykin and RCA. This is an extremely well documented account, with reference to original sources. The bibliography is excellent. Udelson asserts that Jenkins and Baird, drawing on previous inventions, simultaneously but independently demonstrated television. The point is that television didn't start in the 1920s. Neither man "invented television." Neither man "perfected television." Each man was a significant contributor.

    Here's a quote from page 28: 'Thus fifty years of research culminated in public demonstrations of the feasibility of "distant electric vision" on both sides of the Atlantic. C. Francis Jenkins and John Logie Baird, working independently and with differing techniques, each separately invented television and almost simultaneously displayed it to the public. That these two men could arrive at similar results in almost the same month is not surprising. For successful television was the incremental result of suggestion, experimentation, and development in a variety of scientific and engineering endeavors. Both Jenkins and Baird were familiar with this previous work, and by 1925 all of the necessary components of a workable system were present, allowing each man to proceed to combine these components into his particular design.'

Cover of 
       Tele-Visionaries, Webb's inside story of color TV invention. An IEEE book.

On the Web

  • Baird revisionism critique. We suggest this article by British television historian Andrew Emmerson. This source isn't an exhaustive history. Instead, it's a criticism of historical distortions by publicists. Several paragraphs down, you'll find appropriate comments about the current Baird revisionism. Emmerson is the founder and former editor of the journal 405 Alive. Readers of this journal are fans of the obsolete British 405-line televison service. Many of these readers are unusually technically literate. They restore, reproduce, collect and exhibit 405-line television equipment. See 405 Alive.

  • The World's Earliest Television Recordings. Don McLean's page on restoring Baird phonovision recordings. A charming site with commentary and squibs of mechanical television recordings. Opening comments contrast the "provincial" view of one television inventor against the broader, worldwide view. In fact, McLean, who like John Baird is Scottish, mentions television inventors from many countries. McLean continues that Baird used "no new major developments."

  • Mostly Pro-Baird forum about our quiz page. Baird zealots, we appreciate and share your enthusiasm! Thanks for promoting our quiz page. This forum site includes many other mechanical TV topics. These topics include technical discussions from the beginning to the engineering level. You'll also find other historical conversations here. If you're more interested in early literature or patents, the site has a small library of those sources, too.

  • Narrow Bandwidth Television Association By the way, our club the NBTVA welcomes new members. Are you a technology history buff? Love mechanical television? Wonder how it works? Or want to try building your own mechanical TV? Join us!

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