John Logie Baird: the home of the inventor of the medium has been reduced to rubble
Monday 29 October 2007
When the bulldozers arrived at Baird Court a few weeks ago, no crack team of heritage activists was there to meet them. The large 1890s villa offered scant resistance as heavy demolition gear brought destruction to 1 Station Road, in the genteel Sussex resort of Bexhill-on-Sea.
Yet, in the 1940s, it had been home to the inventor John Logie Baird, a frail but driven Scot who in 1923 had travelled to Sussex for his health, and there transmitted the first flickering images by television. And Baird Court was where, on June 14, 1946, he died, aged 57 – still applying his genius to technologies that would define the 20th century and pierce the 21st.
The planning "battle" had registered no more than a tiny echo in the sound chamber of national life. Only the Association of Bexhill Museums raised much protest, describing its loss as "absurd" given Baird's international stature. Indeed, Australia's national TV awards are called the Logies.
In his own country, though, Logie Baird is a prophet with less honour. When planning officers at Rother District Council wrote to English Heritage for its views on demolition in 2005, it had no record of Baird Court's association with the great inventor. Its reply was confined to the design of the block of flats with which George Wimpey, the builders, will replace it.
Though born into a Victorian household in Helensburgh on the Clyde in 1888, Logie Baird always seemed set to be a very 20th century geek. The telephone exchange that he built as a child had to close when suspended wires caused an accident involving a hansom cab.
Baird Sr, a Presbyterian minister, watched the boy – described in school reports as "timid" and "very slow" – recycle his materials into a new assembly. As darkness fell one night, his parents found that they occupied the first house in Helensburgh with electric lighting.
Logie Baird's early CV, though, suggested a boffin condemned to obscurity. He tried his hand at pickle production in Trinidad, then at making diamonds by heating graphite – an experiment that shorted Glasgow's power supply. Arriving in seaside Hastings in 1923 with £200 to his name, he made a decision: "I must invent something." His autobiography relates that one invention, a "safety razor" with a rustproof glass blade, was binned when he cut himself "rather badly". Pavement tests of his pneumatic boot-soles ended with "a succession of drunken and uncontrollable lurches followed by a few delighted urchins".
Within just months, however, he had assembled his Televisor. (The word "television" had been coined in Paris as early as 1900 to describe the elusive holy grail that by 1923 scientists were pursuing across the globe.) The heart of Logie Baird's machine was the Nipkow disc, invented in 1884. His early version was cut from a hatbox. The "eureka" moment was solving the problem that had dogged competitors: synchronisation between transmitter and receiver. When he saw the small but unmistakable image of a Maltese cross appear several feet across his lodging-house room, he knew that he had achieved "Television".
A laboratory in Frith Street, Soho, followed. By 1925, his machinery could transmit the image of an object in motion, including the changing expressions of a human face. The tweed-suited Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald expressed disbelief that technology could achieve such a thing; others thought that magic was at work.
Although his first "performer" was a reluctant clerk from the office downstairs at Frith Street, others were less shy. In 1927, Baird tried out his infrared technique, "Noctovision", on Sir Oliver Lodge, whose transmission of early radio signals had led him to search for a scientific cause of extra-sensory perception. Unlike the elfin beauties now ubiquitous on TV screens, Baird considered Lodge "the best subject for television I have ever seen, his white beard and impressive head coming through marvellously well".
Sometimes reality needed a little help: Baird enhanced the contrast between facial features by using green face powder and blue lipstick. The notion that our desire for perfect, viewable television entails manipulation – even deception – is not a new one. It seems likely, too, that Baird had been achieving results with television long before his move to Hastings. His Heath Robinson prototypes no doubt dampened speculation about his progress.
The science, though, was moving fast. His mechanical Televisor was superceded by electronic television in the late 1920s, and the cathode-ray tube in the 1930s. Yet Baird went on to develop other lasting technologies: his "Telechrome" colour system led to Sony's Trinitron; he was instrumental in both fibre-optics and radar; and he performed the first "cable" transmission of a television image, from London to Glasgow.
The scheming of Lord Reith – his former classmate at the West of Scotland Royal Technical College – to preserve BBC control of broadcasting proved unequal to Baird's will. But in 1929, Baird started a pirate broadcasting station in Berlin, and a press campaign soon secured his return to the British fold.
In 1944, his secret wartime work on radar winding down, he moved to Bexhill, a few miles from Hastings, with his wife and two children. He was heading for a stroke – but before it arrived he perfected Telechrome, and patented a recording and playback device for images, building on "Phonovision", which he had conceived in 1927.
Will the nation miss Baird Court? The house – in the so-called Vernacular Revival style – was no architectural masterpiece. Its fakeries included gables with "Tudorbethan" beams, and tile-hung walls to mimic some distant rural idyll. Yet it seemed to represent Logie Baird. With its square windows and outsize proportions, it carried a dim visual memory of the Baird Company's early televisions, their huge wooden cabinets housing an improbably small screen.
English Heritage could not be persuaded to list Baird Court for its historic significance. When the proposal briefly crossed Tessa Jowell's desk, she passed up a chance to quash the theory that, when she hears the word "culture", she reaches for her Olympic starting-pistol. English Heritage's Blue Plaque scheme operates only in London; Logie Baird's London house gained one years ago. The plaque at his Hastings lodging house, 21 Linton Crescent, was erected by the Institute of Physics.
Perhaps it is that television wrongfoots a heritage community more attuned to castles and kings, to dark, satanic mills with cast-iron machinery still fixed to the floor. Can the increasingly lightweight medium that once spawned Bronowski's Ascent of Man but now charts the descent of Jade Goody really be part of our "heritage"? In 2006, Logie Baird's son, Malcolm, was asked what his father would have done had he known how television would turn out. Logie might, Malcolm said, have chosen to concentrate on other projects.
The builders' signs have gone up at 1 Station Road, and a crater awaits the foundations of the new flats. In this strange lunar scene, it is possible to imagine the spirit of John Logie Baird lingering in the ether above. It is easier, though, to reflect that this is the way our heritage ends – not with a bang but George Wimpey.
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