Scottish electrical engineer who pioneered television. In 1925 he gave the first public demonstration of television, transmitting an image of a recognizable human face. The following year, he gave the world's first demonstration of true television before an audience of about 50 scientists at the Royal Institution, London. By 1928 Baird had succeeded in demonstrating colour television.
Baird used a mechanical scanner which temporarily changed an image into a sequence of electronic signals that could then be reconstructed on a screen as a pattern of half-tones. The neon discharge lamp Baird used offered a simple means for the electrical modulation of light at the receiver. His first pictures were formed of only 30 lines repeated approximately 10 times a second. The results were crude but it was the start of television as a practical technology.
By 1927, Baird had transmitted television over 700 km/435 mi of telephone line between London and Glasgow and soon after made the first television broadcast using radio, between London and the SS Berengaria , halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. He also made the first transatlantic television broadcast between Britain and the USA when signals transmitted from the Baird station in Coulson, Kent, were picked up by a receiver in Hartsdale, New York.
Baird's black-and-white system was used by the BBC in an experimental television service in 1929. In 1936, when the public television service was started, his system was threatened by one promoted by Marconi-EMI. The following year the Baird system was dropped in favour of the Marconi electronic system, which gave a better definition.
Baird was born in Helensburgh Dunbartonshire on 13 August 1888. He was educated at Larchfield Academy and later took an engineering course at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. He then studied at Glasgow University, but World War I interrupted his final year there. Rejected as physically unfit for military service, Baird became a superintendent engineer with the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company. In 1918 he gave up engineering because of ill-health and set himself up in business, marketing successfully such diverse products as patent socks, confections and soap in Glasgow, London and the West Indies. Persistent ill health, leading to a complete physical and nervous breakdown in 1923, forced him to retire.
On his retirement, Baird concentrated on solving the problems of television. Having little money, his first apparatus was crude and makeshift, set up on a washstand in his attic room. A tea-chest formed the base of his motor, a biscuit tin housed the projection lamp, and cheap cycle-lamp lenses were incorporated into the design. The whole contraption was held together by darning needles, pieces of string and scrap wood. Yet within a year he had succeeded in transmitting a flickering image of the outline of a Maltese cross over a distance of a few metres and was able to make his successful demonstration the year after that.
Despite his bitter disappointment at having his system passed over in favour of the Marconi system, Baird continued his experimental work in colour television. By 1939 he had demonstrated colour television using a cathode-ray tube which he had adapted as the most successful method for producing a well-defined and brilliant image. Baird's inventive and engineering abilities were widely recognized. In 1937, he became the first British subject to receive the Gold Medal of the International Faculty of Science. The same year, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of Edinburgh, where a plaque was erected to commemorate his demonstration of true television in 1926. Baird also became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Physical Society and Associate of the Royal Technical College.
He continued his research on stereoscopic and large screen television until his death.
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