One hundred years ago, a sickly Scottish scientist came to Trinidad to recover from illness, but would leave with an invention that would change the world. The man was John Logie Baird. His invention: the television.
Baird would become known as “The Father of Television,” most famous for being the first person to demonstrate a working television.
The first televised images he transmitted were done during experiments he did in Trinidad.
Baird had come to the tropics in November 1919 because of chronic ill health related to thyroid problems, which plagued him throughout his life. He chose the cool valley of Santa Cruz because weather conditions there seemed to help him to recover from his illness.
On a Stollmeyer cocoa estate, Baird worked alone on his secret project, as well as ideas for other inventions.
When he started his research, no one believed it was possible to broadcast pictures, but that did not daunt him.
His pressing problem, however, was poverty. He had run out of money to continue his research. To generate income, he tried selling imported cotton textiles, but that failed, as there were already merchants and distributors in Port of Spain.
Recognising that the island had an abundant supply of fruit and sugar, he set up a jam factory. The eccentric scientist converted a washtub into a giant copper cauldron that could hold more than 100 pounds of fruit, suspended it over a brick, and could be seen stirring frantically.
However, the jam attracted more insects than he could handle, and that business failed too.
Baird was so focused on his projects that his memoirs make no mention of the riots of early December 1919, arising from trouble with the stevedores at Port of Spain. According to a report in the Times, a troop of British marines was brought in to quell the unrest and there were two fatalities.
Perhaps, apart from his science experiment and financial shortcomings, Baird had other worries. His neighbours on the estate regarded him as a strange character who was creating ghosts in their quiet neighbourhood.
The “ghosts” they were complaining about were in fact the images Baird transmitted while working feverishly on the production of television.
“There are tales of this fair-haired white man in a shack in the jungle with bright flashing lights,” Stewart Noble, chairman of the Helensburg Heritage Trust, is quoted as saying in a 2014 BBC report.
The sight of blue and green lights flashing from his home at night, plus coffin-like lids propped up in his backyard, had his superstitious neighbours fearful that the mad scientist was dealing in supernatural forces, In other words, practising obeah. One report claimed that, one night, an angry crowd gathered outside Baird’s bungalow and stoned him out from his dwelling, and he was forced to flee the island.
Consequently, Baird’s electronic experiments did not survive for a year in Trinidad.
Armed with a prototype, he returned to London in late 1920 with most of his capital gone and a notebook full of scribbled ideas for hair restorer and boot polish, etc.
But one idea would soon begin to dominate his life – television.
After a few years developing the new technology, Baird gradually managed to show a recognisable head-and-shoulders “television” picture.
In 1923, Baird built what was to become the world’s first working television set using items including an old hatbox and a pair of scissors, some darning needles, a few bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest, and sealing wax and glue.
In February 1924, he demonstrated to the Radio Times that a semi-mechanical analogue television system was possible by transmitting moving silhouettes. In July of the same year, he received a 1,000-volt electric shock, but survived with only a burnt hand.
Baird gave the first public demonstration of moving silhouettes by television at Selfridges department store in London, in a three-week series of demonstrations beginning on March 25, 1925. Soon after, he founded the Baird Television Development Company Ltd.
The outbreak of war in 1939 halted television broadcasting, which forced his company into bankruptcy. Baird and his family left London for Cornwall, where he continued his research on television at his own expense.
In early 1946 he suffered a stroke. He died in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, on June 14, 1946, at 57.
The development of television was the result of work by many inventors. Among them, Baird was a prominent pioneer and made major advances in the field. Many historians credit Baird with being the first to produce a live, moving, greyscale television image from reflected light. Baird achieved this, where other inventors had failed, by obtaining a better photoelectric cell and improving the signal conditioning from the photocell and the video amplifier.
American inventor Philo Farnsworth is credited with the all-electronic system that could produce an image for broadcast much more effectively.
Baird’s television was mechanical-based rather than being electronic, and this meant the picture quality was poor, with fuzziness and flickering images.
As a result, electronic television quickly made Baird’s mechanical technology obsolete.
Still, in 2002, Baird was ranked number 44 in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote. In 2006, he was named as one of the ten greatest Scottish scientists in history, having been listed in the National Library of Scotland’s Scottish Science Hall of Fame. In 2015 he was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
Television historians tend to ignore the Trinidad leg of Baird’s scientific journey, focusing on a London demonstration on January 26, 1926, and only mentioning his foray into jam-making.
Baird is recognised as one of the inventors of the mechanical television, and inventor of both the first publicly demonstrated colour television system, and the first purely electronic colour television picture tube.
Although Baird’s invention had its beginning in Trinidad, it was not until August 1962 that commercial television was introduced this country. On Independence Day, the proceedings at the Red House were telecast to a crowd assembled at Woodford Square.