Today, Thursday 8th February 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of John Logie Baird’s historic triumph in the race to transmit television across the Atlantic – from London to Hartsdale, New York.
The New York Times, dated 9th February, reported the first transatlantic television transmission under the title: Persons in Britain Seen Here by Television as They Pose before Baird’s Electric ‘Eye’
The images were crude, imperfect, broken, but they were images none the less. Man’s vision had panned the ocean; transatlantic television was a demonstrated reality, and one more great dream of science was on the way to realization.
The demonstration was made by the Baird Television Development Companyof London, using short-wave radio sets for transmission of the “vision sound” and the televisor invented by John L.Baird – who has also invented an instrument for seeing in the dark – for turning this sound back into vision after its ocean hop.
The transformed vision of the man and woman in the London laboratory came through the ether in the form of a bumblebee’s hum, a musical buzz or irregular cadence representing in sound the lights and shadows of their faces – all that was transmitted in the test.
When the televisor, a black box compact enough to be carried around in a taxi, had done its work with this rhythmic rumble from across the sea the visions gradually built themselves up of tiny oblongs of light suspended in a whirling rectangle of brilliance in the machine’s gaping mouth.
The vision of the woman appeared broken and scattered, but it was still plain that she was a woman and that she was showing first the full face and then the profile.
The demonstration was attended by O.G Hutchinson, MD of the Baird TV Company who had travelled to Hartsdale especially, Ben Clapp (Baird’s Chief Engineer), RM Hart (owner of a short wave radio station) and Bill Fox reporter from the Associated Press.
This was a typical reaction to the transmission by the Americans who fully saluted and celebrated Baird’s achievement whilst the UK media either down played or simply ignored what had been accomplished.
Ben Clapp recalled when interviewed for a 1988 BBC Scotland documentary, that it was understood that America had 1,000 engineers on the race to be first. “We had about six between the US and London.”
Clapp recalled “Baird wandered into the lab in London one morning and said to me: ‘Mr Clapp, can you go to America tomorrow?’
“When I tell you we had to build the televisor to take with me, book a passage and make all the arrangements, I did fairly well by going in a week’s time”.
Clapp constructed a 30 line ‘Televisior’ and arrived in New York with six crates of equipment which he set up in Hart’s cellar. After several unsuccessful attempts, a picture was eventually received at around 01.35 GMT and transmissions continued until 04.38. The first person to be televised was Baird himself.
On Clapp’s passage home back to the UK aboard the Cunard Berengaria, another first was achieved: TV reception in mid ocean.
American radio station owner Donald Flamm, who had known Baird, called him: “A true genius, a fine Scotsman; people should be proud of the fact that one of their countrymen discovered and invented television.”
The New York Times followed up on their coverage on the first transatlantic television transmission with a further article on the 11th February which recalled Baird’s achievement and compared it to Marconi’s sending of the letter ‘s’ across the Atlantic.
His success deserves to rank with Marconi’s sending of the letter “s” across the Atlantic – the first intelligible signal ever transmitted from shore to shore in the development of transoceanic radio telegraphy.
As a communication Marconi’s “s” was negligible; as a milestone in the onwards sweep of radio, of epochal importance. And so it is with Baird’s first successful effort in transatlantic television. .… Whatever may be the future of television, to Baird belongs the success of having been a leader in its early development.
An interesting footnote to the transatlantic transmission occurred in 2015, when UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on several original Baird historic items including the world’s oldest surviving transmission recording and Ben Clapp’s original radio log books for the USA receiving station and his amateur radio station (GK2Z) used in a test transmissions. The notes contained the first ever use of the acronym ‘TV’ for television.
The collection was eventually saved for the Nation when an anonymous businessman, who had lived in Helensburgh for 20 years, paid £78,750 and donated the items to the University of Glasgow.
The donor stated: “John Logie Baird was a Helensburgh man and a Scottish pioneer who helped change the world, and with his ties to the University of Glasgow I think it is only right and proper that this important collection should be coming to the university, and hopefully it will help inspire future pioneering engineers.”
The last word on the 90th anniversary belongs to Ben Clapp, who simply stated back in 1998 “What Britain did in never honouring Baird was a disgrace.”