Friday, October 02, 2009


I want you to remember the date; October 30, 1925. That was the date when William Edward Taynton almost became famous. This 20 year old London clerk might have possessed the second most famous face of the twentieth century. Instead he remained a nobody, even though the man who recorded William’s face, John Logie Baird, was a genius. But Baird was also, unfortunately, a genius who was wrong - a phenomenon far more common than you might think. Why Baird was wrong and why William would never be as famous as he might be, is best understood if you take a moment and try, like Baird, to invent television from scratch. The idea behind television had actually been patented by German engineering student Paul Nipkow back in 1885. But it doesn’t appear Nipkow ever actually built a working device because it was darn near impossible to do so. At the core of Nipkow’s patent was a disc with a hole in it (or holes) which allowed light from the subject focused by a lens to fall on a piece of Selenium, which is one of those paradoxical toxic killer chemicals without which human life is not possible - like salt.Selenium had been identified as photoelectric as far back as 1839, meaning that when photons hit it, the chemical emitted electrons – it converted light into electricity. But until Nipkow, nobody could figure out a use for it. And it was poisonous to even handle. Now, when Nipkow’s disc was set to spinning at high speed it built up an image producing flickering signals from the Selenium which could “paint” in binary (on/off bursts of electrons) a recreation of the subject placed in front of the lens.In fact the process is far more complicated then it sounds because you needed two spinning discs, each with multiple holes and you have to match their rotations, and because the signal produced was in direct proportion to the quantity of photons striking the Selenium, and because only a fraction of the light was reflected off the subject toward the Selenium, the subject had to be so hot it almost melted, and Nipkow could only produce one image a minute. And then there was the problem of scale. The image created was no larger than the Selenium, which meant the image could be no larger than the size of a business card. And all those problems were repeated in reverse at the receiving end.It was enough to make you pull your hair out, which may explain why Nipkow developed such a prominent receding hairline. Enter the sickly, oddly obsessed genius, John Baird. At twelve Baird had been labeled “very slow” and “…by no means a quick learner.” But as an adult he was the prototype for the idiosyncratic absent minded “...disheveled, shaggy-haired and sallow “ British amateur scientist - except that he was Scottish. Baird did not have large corporations supporting him. Instead, working in a tiny workshop amongst the tourist traps in Hastings, England, Baird had actually improved on Nipkow’s device, transmitting his crude images across an entire room. Okay, it wasn't a large room, but it was a transmission. But in July of 1924 he almost electrocuted himself, whereupon his landlord politely asked him to leave. So Baird moved to an attic apartment in the Soho section of London with his equipment and his ventriloquist's dummy, Stooky Bill. His Nipkow disc and transmitter were “...glued together with sealing wax and string…but it worked.” Desperate for investors, and a regular income, Bard dropped by unannounced to the Daily Express tabloid newspaper, offering a demonstration. The editor pleaded with his staff, “For God's sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who's down there. He says he's got a machine for seeing by wireless! Watch him — he may have a razor on him.” The editor missed a great story. Baird could now scan twelve images a second, which made live transmission of motion, practical. And that was why he went to see William Edward Taynton. William was an office boy who worked a few floors below Baird’s room. He was also partially disabled. He had expressed an interest in Baird’s experiments and the two had struck up an unlikely friendship. Perhaps it was that Baird could find no fellow scientists who understood or believed in his methods. But it was on this penultimate day in October that Baird asked William to come up stairs and help him with an experiment. William sat in a straight back chair in front of Baird’s Nipkow scanner. He had to shut his eyes very tightly to avoid being blinded (even with his eyes closed) by the banks of bright lights. The photoelectric cell had no signal booster so the light reflected off of William’s face would produce an image of only equal power. The lights were so hot that William had to be paid to stay put. Baird turned the scanner on, the discs began to spin and Baird asked William to slowly turn his head to the left and then to the right. It might have been an historical moment. Instead the blasting glare produced only a shadow of fame. In 1954 William appeared on the American television game show “I’ve Got a Secret”. In 1965 he spoke with a BBC talk show about his friendship with John Baird. But William himself was never properly famous. The first human whose image was captured on Television was not even recognizable, in part because the image was so primitive, and in part because John Baird was on the wrong track. Baird’s invention was mechanical. The invention by the American, Philo Farnsworth, was electronic. The Morman genius had invented his method while he was still a teenager in high school. His scanner was not a spinning disc but a sweeping arc of electrons; faster, more precise and overall simpler than the Nipkow disc. With no mechanical moving parts, the Farnsworth invention was true television. Still, John Baird was not a failure. In January 1926 he demonstrated his system before fifty scientists. They were amazed. Investors finally responded, including the BBC. In 1927 Baird sent a moving live image (in color) over 438 miles via telephone lines, between Glasgow and London. The first long distance television broadcast and the first color broadcast.Then in 1938 the BBC compared Baird’s system to Farnsworth’s system. During the competition Baird received a demonstration from Farnsworth himself, and even before the BBC's decision was announced Baird merged his private British company with America's RCA Corporation to gain access to Farnsworth's patents. But Baird was caught in a doomed comptetition without enough funds. His mechanical version of television died a merciful death. In 1946 the sickly Baird died of a heart attack. It would be sixty years before his contributions to television would be remembered, including his invention of the very word, “television”. He deserves to be remembered for that, if nothing else.

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