Television To-day and To-morrow

By John Baird. Originally published in Newsletter, August 1939.

Television to-day is nearly 14 years old, but although the first televised image appeared only in 1925 the history of television dates back much further. It may be said to have commenced with May's discovery that selenium was sensitive to light. This created immense interest and started a host of inventors on devices to see by telegraphy. Unfortunately none of these schemes came to fruition, cheifly because of the fact that the current available from the selenium cell was so exceedingly minute as to be unusable. No means were available at that time of magnifying this infinitesimal current. Then came Fleming's invention of the thermionic valve, which De Forest transformed by introducing the third factor into an amplifier capable of magnifying the most minute currents to any extent desired.

In 1925 television was regarded as a myth-something fantastic which might or might not be realised in the future. I had studied the subject many years before when a student, and had made several futile efforts to construct television apparatus, but had been utterly baffled by the fact that no useful current could be obtained from the selenium cell. In 1923 I resumed an attack on the problem, the thermionic valve by that time having been developed and supplying, I believed, the key to the problem. By using very simple apparatus I was soon able to transmit the shadow of objects, but found it infinitely more difficult to transmit a real image: and, unfortunately for me, no one was sufficiently interested in the crude shadows I sent across to give the subject serious attention. The troubles which prevented the next step were partly lack of light and partly electrical difficulties in my amplifier equipment. I used a dummy's head as a model and this appeared on the screen as a mere outline. In October, 1925, however, I succeeded in overcoming my difficulties and saw for the first time a real image on a television screen. The dummy's head instead of being a mere white oval suddenly flashed up as a recognisable image. The next thing to do was to try a human face, and I got the office boy from the next-door office to "sit" for me. His head appeared on the screen, and was quite recognisable. He was the first person ever to be seen by television but I had to bribe him with half a crown to become historical.

With something to show, there was no difficulty whatever in getting finance and assistance, but the next step proved unexpectedly difficult. To be of any general use television must obviously be broadcast. I applied to the B.B.C. for facilities. They commenced by being very helpful, and in 1926, with their co-operation, television images were actually sent out through 2LO.

Early Difficulties

These transmissions came to a sudden end. The authorities decided that the B.B.C. could not be used for this purpose. We then applied for a licence to transmit ourselves and obtained the first transmitting television licence, 2TV. At great expense we erected our own transmitting station, our own studio, and commenced to broadcast from Long Acre. Then came another blow. Complaints of interference came in. There was no space on the ether for television, and we were ordered to close down. It was a case of either transmitting through the B.B.C. or nothing. We approached the B.B.C. again. They sent down a committee who promptly turned the whole thing down. It looked as if television, as far as this country was concerned, had come to an untimely end. But the pictures were there and could be seen.

We brought every influential person available to our laboratories-Postmaster-Generals, Prime Ministers, and anyone who could help-and in fact raised such a commotion that a Parliamentary Committee was formed to investigate the position. This committee, headed by the then Postmaster-General, Sir Mitchell Thomson, later Lord Selsdon, asked us to transmit television pictures through 2LO, the B.B.C. station, these pictures to be received before a committee of experts of the Post Office at the General Post Office, and before a committee of experts of the B.B.C. at the B.B.C. headquarters. The transmission was successful and described by the committee as a notable scientific achievement, with a recommendation that the B.B.C. should grant facilities for broadcasting. This they did, and in 1929 television broadcasting commenced through the B.B.C. The pictures were small, they flickered and they lacked detail. These troubles were entirely due to congestion of the ether. A picture with plenty of detail and no flicker required more ether space than was then available.

The development of the ultra-short wave provided a new space in the ether in which there was ample room for television. We turned our attention to this new channel. In 1932 we had available television apparatus to give a wealth of detail using the ultra-short waves. Other companies were, however, by then in the field. The competition was keen. Again a Parliamentary Committee was formed to investigate the situation. It recommended that the Baird and the Marconi E.M.I., another firm, should broadcast side by side over a trial period, after which it would be decided which transmitting apparatus would be used. Unfortunately, we lost the contract.

To-day television is sent out from the B.B.C. transmitter at Alexandra Palace, which covers London and Greater London, and the pictures received on home receivers are comparable with those seen on the home cinema and have immense entertainment value. Nearly every important radio manufacturer is now making television receivers for the home. But another very important branch of television has come into prominence-television for the cinema. Already a number of London cinemas have their television screens on which the audiences can see topical events as they occur. For example, the last Derby was shown in several London cinemas to large audiences. Before long every cinema of importance will have its television screen. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this. In my opinion it is only a matter of time before the television screen supersedes the present cinema screen.

What will be the next development? I think it will be television in colour. As far back as 1928 I showed a little flickering picture in colour at the British Association meeting, and have recently taken up this work intensively. We showed a 12-foot colour television picture at the Dominion Theatre in 1938, and are now applying it to the cathode ray tube. This development is still in the experimental stage, and it may be some considerable time before it can be available for commercial purposes.

And what after colour? Stereoscopic relief, so that the picture stands out in three dimensions, is not outside practicability. It has already been achieved experimentally, and taking a long flight into the future the television picture to come will be one in full colour and with stereoscopic relief. Television also will undoubtedly be applied to the telephone, so that we shall be able to see as well as hear our caller. Another device which may have its uses is noctovision. In the earlier days our sitters were much troubled by the bright light necessary, and it occurred to me to use invisible rays beyond the light end of the spectrum. By filtering out all the visible light with thin shades of ebonite I was able to transmit the images of persons sitting in total darkness. Vision without light! At the time no practicable application was given to this. It was merely a rather startling phenomenon, but is possible uses in warfare, for example, are quite obvious, and also its application to navigation, since infra-red rays have a very great penetrative power through mist or fog.

Television for All

Meantime much more imagination is needed on the part of official bodies in this country if Great Britain is not to lose the lead it has gained over other countries. Millions are being spent in research laboratories and on technical development in the United States and Germany with the object of forestalling British manufacturers in the world markets. This competition can be met only if our own home market is adequately developed, and this depends entirely upon the development of a network of television transmitting stations to cover the whole of Great Britain. Without this network of stations, making television programmes available to all, plans for mass production of receivers cannot be carried out. It is time officialdom acted more energetically. Television for all should not be regarded as an optimistic slogan only capable of fulfilment in the dim and distant future, but as a necessity to a young and virile industry which has already expended millions of pounds in research and development, which certainly entitles it to far greater consideration than has hitherto been forthcoming.