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Reference > Contemporary documents > Baird talk

A Broadcast Talk by John Logie Baird

Given on Sunday 18 October 1931 from stations WMCA and WPCH, New York


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a very great pleasure and privilege to address you by the invitation of Station WMCA, which has asked me to give a short talk on my impressions of New York, and to say a few words about my work on television.

Before doing so, however, may I pause for this very brief moment to say that in the death early this morning of Thomas A. Edison the world at large lost a great benefactor and one of the greatest pioneers of electrical science. Almost every branch of scientific research was enriched by his contributions. In many parts of the world Mr. Edison was considered the greatest living American. I know that already Great Britain is mourning with you the passing of a magnificent personality and a master mind of modern science.

Well, my first impression of New York was associated with the bagpipes, for the United Scottish Clans very kindly arranged a reception for me on the pier, with a complete pipe band and a police escort. On landing from the boat we drove through the streets of New York to the hotel. I was positively thrilled by the overpowering magnitude of the buildings. In Europe a ten-story building is considered exceptionally high, in fact, a skyscraper, whereas in New York there do not appear to be any buildings less than twenty or thirty storeys, and one building I have been in runs up to a hundred and two stories.

Apart from the buildings, the whole atmosphere of New York is very different from that of Europe. It is an atmosphere of go-ahead vigour, welcoming novelty and enterprise. The people here are all out for progress, whereas in Europe we are inclined to look with distrust and suspicion on anything new. In the last few days I have had an opportunity to look into the position of television in this side of the Atlantic, and I am truly amazed at the immense amount of public interest and the remarkably good work which has been done. This new branch of science is having a warm welcome, and every encouragement is being given to it, not only by the public but by the broadcasting authorities throughout the country, in strong contrast to the lack of interest and, in some cases, obstructionist attitude of the broadcasting authorities of Europe.

As an example of the acceptance of television in this country, the plans of this well-known station from which I am speaking to go ahead immediately with an up-to-date broadcasting television programme, and to use all means in their power to further the science and bring its benefits as quickly as possible to the public at large, are extremely encouraging.

Our Company is installing the necessary television transmitting apparatus, and we hope, in a very short time, to be sending out from this station regular television programmes similar to those which we are now sending out in London, but with this difference, that through WMCA we shall have a much longer time available. You are no doubt aware that this station has a sole concession for broadcasting Madison Square boxing matches, and it is hoped in a very short time to add to the word description of the fight by transmitting scenes of the actual fight itself. In addition, arrangements are being made for broadcasting outstanding theatrical events, such as opening nights of Broadway productions. This will be done with apparatus similar to that which are using in England for broadcasting scenes such as the Derby horse-race as we did in June last.

I know you are all very much interested in what is being done in Europe in television, and perhaps you would like to hear some of my own early personal experiences.

In 1925 television as regarded as something of a myth. No true television had ever been shown—only crude shadows. At that time I was working very intensively in a small attic laboratory in the Soho district of London. Things were very black; my cash resources were almost exhausted, and as, day after day, success seemed as far away as ever, I began to wonder if general opinion was not, after all, correct, and television was in truth a myth. But one day, it was in fact the fifth Friday in October 1925, I experienced the one great thrill which research work has brought me. The dummy's head which I used for experimental purposes suddenly showed up on the screen, not as a mere smudge of black and white, but as a real image with details and with gradations of light and shade. I was vastly excited and ran downstairs to obtain a living object. The first person to appear was the office boy from the floor below, a youth named William Taynton, and he, rather reluctantly, consented to submit himself to the experiment. I placed him before the transmitter and went into the next room to see what the screen would show. The screen was entirely blank, and no effort of tuning would produce any result. Puzzled, and very disappointed, I went back to the transmitter, and there the cause of the failure became at once evident. The boy, scared by the intense white light had backed away from the transmitter. In the excitement of the moment I gave him half a crown (then worth 60 cents), and this time he kept his head in the right position. Going again into the next room, I saw his head on the screen quite clearly. It is curious to consider that the first person in the world to be seen by television should have required a bribe to accept that distinction.

From this moment I knew that success was assured, and on January 27th, 1926, I invited the Royal Institution, which, as you probably know, is one of the leading scientific bodies of the world, to a demonstration. Over forty leading scientists turned up, and the little laboratory and the stairs leading to it were packed with some of the most distinguished scientists of Europe. The demonstration was a great success, and excited immense interest, not only in the world of science but among the general public, as it was given considerable publicity in the Press.

From then on the cash shortage ceased, and I was able to make apparatus out of more substantial and suitable materials than soap boxes, biscuit tins, etc. The first transmitted apparatus, for example, had a disc made of cardboard, and the lamp which supplied the illumination was a motor-cycle bulb enclosed in a perforated biscuit tin. The subject for all these preliminary tests was a dilapidated ventriloquist's dummy, and the whole of this conglomeration now rests in the Science Museum in London.

In these preliminary experiments very bright lights were used, and while listening to the complaints of the sitters who were dazzled and blinded by the brilliant illumination, the idea occurred to me to use invisible rays instead of light. This proved by no means an easy matter. I first of all tried the ultra-violet light, and several of the staff nearly lost their eyesight due to the blinding effect of the rays. The next effort was to use the rays at the other end of the spectrum—the so-called infra-red rays, and after some trouble the experiment met with success, and I was able, towards the end of 1926, to demonstrate again to the Royal Institution the transmission of a person sitting in total darkness. This phenomenon I christened "Noctovision" or "seeing in the dark," and it was subsequently shown at the British Association of Science when people sitting in total darkness in Leeds were transmitted by telephone line to London, approximately two hundred miles distant.

An interesting little episode occurred in connection with the first experiments of broadcasting by noctovision. One of the young lady members of our staff was used as a subject. During the noctovision tests, I was looking in at a check receiver and saw the young lady quite clearly moving her head this way and then, and then I was greatly surprised to see the head of one of the engineers also suddenly appear on the screen. He bent forward and kissed the young lady. I mentioned the matter the next day and she indignantly denied it, but the engineer admitted that the temptation of the dark room and the good-looking young lady had been too much for him.

The next development of consequence was the transmission of television images across the Atlantic on February 8th and 9th, 1928. On February 9th, 1928, using a short-wave station situated at Coulsdon, a suburb of London, images were successfully transmitted to Hartsdale, a suburb of New York. This was followed almost immediately by the transmission to the Berengaria in mid-ocean, where the chief wireless operator of the ship was able to see the image of his fiancée in Long Acre, London.

Television is now broadcast regularly through the British Broadcasting Corporation, and our programmes include such things as small plays, boxing matches, and ju-jitsu demonstrations, and last June we broadcast the finish of the great British horse-race, the Derby, which takes place on the Epsom Downs race-course about twenty miles from London. We had a portable daylight transmitted placed opposite the winning post. From there television images were sent by telephone lines to the British Broadcasting Corporation wireless transmitter, and broadcast over the British Isles, so that owners of "Televisors" were able, while seated in their homes, to look in and watch the horses flash past the winning-post. This created an immense amount of interest, and we received many appreciative letters.

I will conclude now by saying that television is only in its infancy and big developments are pending. The television images which have been seen by the general public are no criterion of what has been achieved in the laboratories. Our work now is to simplify and cheapen our present laboratory apparatus, so that it can be made available to the man in the street. The problem of television is solved. What remains to be done is entirely a matter of technical and commercial development.

Throughout the world the highest scientific thought is being devoted to television. Vast strides have been made, and will be made, in this new art. I myself look forward to seeing, in the not far distant future, television theatres supersede the talkies, and the home "Televisor" become as common as the home radio is to-day.

Source: Television, December 1931
Courtesy Royal Television Society

WMCA was owned by Donald Flamm, who was a keen supporter of Baird's ideas  and had the notion of introducing the Baird television system in the USA. Flamm claimed to have developed the first radio network on the eastern seaboard of America and was later involved in establishing what became the Voice of America radio network in Europe. He died in Florida on 15 February 1998 at the age of 98.

Sydney A Moseley, Baird's ardent publicist and a fellow director of Baird Television Ltd, had sailed to America in September 1931 to promote Baird's interests and to investigate the recent developments in television technology, which he characterised as principally concerned with ultra-short wave transmission and the use of cathode ray tubes. 'The ultra-short wave, I am assured by Mr Baird himself,' he wrote, 'is of little use under conditions in this country, inasmuch as its radius is restricted to ten miles, while the cathode ray, which I investigated with him in Germany a few years ago, was found then to be entirely uncommercial.' However, he warned that American could flood the British market 'before very long' with 'millions of sets', unless 'the traders of this country ... take steps'. Moseley, a journalist, was Managing Editor of Television, 'The Official Organ of the Television Society'.

The 'small attic in Soho' was at 22 Frith Street.

January 27th 1926 has frequently been cited as the date of Baird's demonstration to members of the Royal Institution and it is interesting that Baird—or possibly Moseley who, as a journalist, may well have had a hand in writing the talk—makes the mistake, even at this relatively early date. In fact, the demonstration was on 26 January.

The joint application by Baird and WMCA to run an experimental television station was refused by the Federal Radio Commission. Radio Pictures Inc had objected on the grounds that it was a non-US organisation.

Page updated 1 August 2002