Archive for the ‘john logie baird’ Tag

Hastings vs Frith Street: The birthplace of TV

One way or another I spent a lot of time around Soho last week, including at Bar Italia on Frith Street. Above it, not that obvious unless you happen to glance up, is the best Blue Plaque in London, epitomising British understatement. One of the most influential inventions of the 20th century and all it gets is one simple sentence of a dozen words. I took that sentence as gospel and have spent decades in the secure belief that telly came into being in that small room above what has been a classic London coffee bar since 1949, what was Logie Baird’s lab back in 1926. But that’s not really how invention and innovation works…

I went to Hastings a few days ago, to visit Hastings Contemporary art gallery (it turned out to be shut unusually due to staff shortage caused by the Covid pandemic). As you enter the town there is a mosaic road sign that says: “Hastings & St Leonards: the birthplace of television”. My world shook on its axis. I’ve spent my entire career in Television, I have a stake in it, I need to know the basics.

I also have a small stake in Logie Baird having delivered the John Logie Baird lecture at Birmingham University a good few years ago with Dr Christian Jessen of ‘Embarrassing Bodies’.

So what’s the connection between Logie Baird and Hastings? In short, before the Soho demo in 1926, Logie Baird (let’s call him JLB for convenience) experimented with the transmission of TV images in his house in Hastings. That was from 1923, three years before Frith Street.

21 Linton Crescent, Hastings, East Sussex

The house was at 21 Linton Crescent. It has a rival blue plaque from The Institute of Physics, made up of much the same words as the Soho one but in a different order. JLB came to live in the town early in 1923 while convalescing from illness and hoping to benefit from the sea air and more benign South Coast climate. Through to mid 1924 he carried out experiments that led to the transmission of the first television pictures. Similar to Edison’s famous thousand duff light bulbs, the 1926 Soho demo and the 1924 Hastings one both rested on extensive trials, tests and experiments. On failures Edison, responding to a reporter asking: “How did it feel to fail a thousand times?”, said: “I didn’t fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.” Edison has a part in the history of the invention of TV as he speculated early about the possibility of telephone-like devices that could transmit and receive images as well as sounds.

So it was in Hastings that JLB created the first televisual image, a shadowy outline of a Maltese cross. The contraption he constructed to generate this image was made from a Heath Robinson collection of household objects including lenses from bicycle lights, scissors, a hat box, darning needles, a tea chest and sealing wax .

The first transmission of moving TV images took place in February 1924 above a shop in Queen’s Arcade, Hastings which JLB had rented for his workshop. In July that year JLB received a 1,200-volt electric shock, but got off lightly with just a burnt hand. In the wake of the incident he was asked to leave Queen’s Arcade by his landlord, Mr Tree. That’s when he went to London.

From 25th March 1925 over a period of three weeks JLB gave the first public demonstrations of moving TV images at Selfridges. On 26th January 1926 he gave that Soho demonstration, the world’s first of true television, to fifty scientists in the attic room above Bar Italia.

In 1929 yet another plaque enters the story – it was unveiled at a ceremony which Baird attended at Queen’s Arcade.

Rewinding just a little, in 1927 JLB demonstrated his television system over 438 miles of phone line between London and Glasgow. In the wake of that he formed the Baird Television Development Company (BTDC). The following year BTDC achieved the first transatlantic television transmission, successfully sending pictures between London and New York. Also in 1928 he pulled off the first transmission to a ship in mid-Atlantic. During his astounding career he also did the first demonstrations of both colour TV and stereoscopic television.

JLB eventually returned to East Sussex to live out his twilight years in Bexhill-on-Sea. Then he went dark and disappeared in a little dot.

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