Television and Me—The Memoirs of John Logie Baird

Television and Me—the Memoirs of John Logie Baird Ebook edition published 2020 by Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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Malcolm Baird writes: My father wrote his memoirs between May and August 1941 while recovering from a heart attack at Tempsford Hall, a health farm 43 miles north of London. His company, Baird television Ltd., had been wound up soon after the war started in 1939. Since then, he had been working privately on colour television, while my mother and my sister Diana and I had been moved out of London to the comparative safety of Cornwall.

A shorthand secretary was summoned to Tempsford Hall and my father started to dictate his memoirs. These were memoirs in the literal sense (memories) as he was away from his office and his papers. He was also subject to a strict diet after the first few weeks he lost so much weight that his suit had to be altered by a local tailor. Understandably, the memoirs contain the occasional mistake and often the continuity is broken while he tells a funny story or makes personal remarks about some of his friends (and enemies). In spite of these imperfections they are highly readable, with a detached tone and a touch of dry humour.

Occasionally my father breaks into fury, as when he describes the muddy but compulsory football games at school in Helensburgh, or the working conditions in the Glasgow factories where he served as an apprentice. Everything was dutifully taken down by the secretary and typed in double spacing the memoirs were divided into 9 chapters with a total length of 45,000 words.

After leaving Tempsford Hall in the autumn of 1941, my father took up a new project on high speed signalling by televised images, sponsored by Cable and Wireless Ltd. This gave him some badly-needed financial support, while he also continued his work on colour and stereoscopic (3D) television. In 1944 he produced the world’s first colour cathode ray tube, the Telechrome. At the same time he was starting up a new company to produce television sets after the war. By the end of the 1945, he was worn out he had a stroke in February 1946, made a partial recovery, but then died in his sleep on June 14th 1946. The memoirs were deposited in the office of the family lawyer and in 1948 my mother added a final chapter covering the years from 1941 to 1946.

The memoirs remained unpublished for many years although they were drawn upon by the biographer Sydney Moseley (1952) and by my mother in her memoirs (1973). At last, in 1988, Chapters 1 to 9 were published by the Royal Television Society, with support from the BBC. However this first edition had a limited circulation and it only covered the period up to 1941. It was not until 2004 that the memoirs appeared in a popular edition that contained all 10 chapters. The book was published in paperback as “Television and Me” by Mercat Press (Edinburgh). It was well received by the critics and parts of it were broadcast by the BBC as the Book of The Week.

My role in the 2004 edition was to choose illustrations, some from public sources and some from family archives. Additionally, I have inserted footnotes to give fuller background information about people and events. Some of my footnotes corrected the occasional errors that had crept into the memoirs because of the difficult conditions under which they had been written.

The 2004 edition has been out of print for several years, although public interest in television history is increasing. This new edition has been released as an ebook by Birlinn Ltd., which absorbed Mercat Press in 2007. I have written a new Preface and updated and expanded the footnotes. Among recent developments there have been two important technical books by Dr. Douglas Brown on my father’s work on colour and 3D television during World War II. In August 2020, an American journal published a research article by Brandon Inglis and Prof, Gary Couples, with details of the special photocell that my father used in early stages of his research (1924-26). On the personal side, I have added a new note on the recently discovered identity of his first love (“Alice”) who was with him in the early days of television.

The ebook format of the 2020 edition will help the modern reader to navigate between the text and the footnotes and the index. Trivia addicts will like the search function which shows matches for “the Prince of Wales” (6), “Reith” (22) and “Hitler” (14). I hope that this updated edition of my father’s memoirs will serve as his personal addition to the publications and media events that are expected as television approaches its 100th birthday. This will fall on October 2 2025 based on the first breakthrough in the laboratory, or January 26 2026 based on the first public demonstration.

11 March 2021

‘A fabulous distillation of all the joy and bitterness, hurt and humour of an extraordinary man… I doubt there will be a better written, more interesting or important book published in Scotland this year'—Daily Mail (2004)

Funds were going down, the situation was becoming desperate and we were down to our last £30 when at last, one Friday in the first week of October 1925, everything functioned properly. The image of the dummy’s head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes, and felt myself shaking with excitement.

In one of the most extraordinary and entertaining autobiographies to be written by any scientist or inventor, John Logie Baird tells the story of his life and the scientific journey which led to the creation of television. He writes with blunt candour and caustic wit about his childhood in Scotland and the wild escapades of his early business career, when he marketed his own patent brand of medicated undersocks, failed in a hilarious attempt to set up a jam-making factory in the Caribbean and went on to sell soap wholesale. Then he gives the definitive account of the epoch-making experiments through which television was created, and his later troubled relationship with the fledgling BBC and his bête noir, Lord Reith, who disliked television. The BBC obstructed and snubbed Baird at every opportunity.

Some of his commercial and scientific rivals made a concerted attempt to discredit his status as the central figure in the invention of television, and even today, this has led to his importance being misunderstood. This new edition of his grippingly readable autobiography, edited and introduced by Baird’s only son, Malcolm, will help to set the record straight.