Two technologies: the Baird Televisor and Photomechanical printing in monochrome — by Daniel Haynes

Photographic methods began to influence commercial printing in the closing decades of the 19th century. They depended on two developments. One (affecting relief printing only) was controlling the etching of the metal when lowering the unwanted parts. The other was the manufacture of crossed-line screens that could break down the continuous tones of an image into binary dots of various sizes, small ones in light areas, larger ones in dark areas. The main limitation of photomechanical printing in relief was that the resolution of the grid of dots limited the kind of paper used, the commercial norm being 133 dots to the inch (52.36 dots to the cm). From A Brief Guide to Printing Processes in the Exhibition.

The Baird Televisor, leaflet c. 1933
The Baird Televisor, leaflet, c. 1933. JJColl: Television 1. Relief printed halftone block, printed in blue.

Baird Televisor detail
Baird Televisor detail showing binary dots

From cars and aeroplanes to telephones and domestic gas stoves, The Art of Advertising  showcases many great inventions of the early 20th century. The Baird Televisor was the first commercial television, manufactured by Plessor (now BAE Systems), and marketed as ‘the very latest marvel . . . Not a photograph, nor yet a shadowgraph, but an actual moving image’. Its inventor, the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird (1888-1946), was a pioneer of early television who had demonstrated the first live television broadcast in 1926, the first cross-country broadcast in 1927, and the first transatlantic television signal in 1928. The Baird Televisor, sold to the public from 1929, brought ‘the very latest marvel’ into the home for the first time.

The Televisor was a mechanical television — the precursor to analogue. Its black-and-white ‘moving image’ was the result of decades of experimentation and invention, adapting the image-scanning ‘Nipkow disk’ patented by the German inventor Paul Gottleib Nipkow in 1885. As the diagram below demonstrates, a bright light was projected onto the subject through a Nipkow disk. The reflected light was then captured by photo-sensitive selenium cells and converted into an electric signal, which was displayed on the home receiver kit via its own Nipkow disk (the upright drum on the model shown above). This YouTube video from Technology Connections provides an excellent breakdown of the complicated science behind mechanical televisions — though Baird’s 1923 prototype ran on just a few bike lights, old cardboard, and glue — but if you want to skip the science, just know that the earliest screens produced an image not much wider than an inch and a half.

Diagram showing the transmission of sound and image for early televisions (Public domain: Wikimedia Commons). An adapted ‘Nipkow Disk’ is seen attached to the ‘Driving motor’, top-left.
Baird Televisor screen, showing the 30-line image (courtesy of the Early Television Museum).

The Baird Televisor had a resolution of 30 lines, corresponding to the 30 holes in its Nipkow Disk. The higher the resolution, the bigger the Nipkow disk needed to be, and this was impractical (and incredibly noisy) for home systems. Although the Televisor is certainly bulky by modern standards, it is important to counter our sensibility for thinner, sleeker appliances by drawing attention to the Televisor’s biggest rival: the cinema, which predated television by over a decade. As Donald F. McLean writes in his re-examination of early television, Restoring Baird’s Image: ‘it is hard for us to appreciate how significant a hold cinema had when television first started.’ That Baird managed not only to capture moving images without conventional film and transmit them over great distances but achieved this in a device no bigger than a moderately-sized CRT is a marvel in its own right, remembering that cinema was not required to transmit beyond the walls of the movie theatre — and it didn’t project ‘live’.

Understood in this context, the ‘DAILY BROADCAST’ detailed bottom-right in our advertisement for the Televisor takes on critical importance as a persuasive device. To justify its high cost and position itself as a valid competitor to the cinema, the Televisor had to give people a reason to stay indoors. Enter the British Broadcasting Corporation, and its first foray into television. On the face of it, the Televisor schedule is conspicuously limited to a half-hour slot on weekday mornings. In fact, the first BBC broadcasts in 1929 didn’t include sound — but a complete broadcasting schedule from 1930 digitised by the Early Television Museum reveals that an additional evening transmission was broadcast from midnight to 12.30am on Tuesdays and Fridays. The schedule is viewable here (content warning: one programme contains the use of a racial slur). These early programmes have more in common with theatre than cinema, with vocal or instrumental recitals and solo comedic entertainers dominating the line-up. While it’s true that ensembles such as ballet troupes occasionally feature, early television favoured the lone performer.

Look back at the advertisement and notice the shape of the screen. Unlike modern televisions, it is portrait-oriented: allegedly, John Logie Baird initially conceived of his invention as a real-time communication device, much like the modern video call, and devised screen-space optimised to the dimensions of the single caller. And, like video calls, it’s more difficult to fit a crowd into a portrait rather than a landscape screen. Whatever the reason, Televisors, and all subsequent models including the 1933-4 Mirror Drum, retained this odd orientation.

So what was early television actually like for contemporary audiences? As this 1928 review of a Televisor demonstration suggests, the answer is perhaps ‘not great’:

1928 review of the Televisor’s image quality (courtesy of the Early Television Museum).
John Logie Baird in his laboratory with ‘Stooky Bill’ (Public domain: Wikimedia Commons).

For however groundbreaking it was, mechanical television could not match the high definition and manoeuvrability of the film camera, and a clear display could be difficult to achieve. The Baird receptor could not move (i.e. it could not pan), regular synchronisation was required, and its reliance on bright artificial light confined it to dim indoor studios; as such, a static actor or performer aided by high-contrast makeup and lighting produced the most reliably watchable content, especially on early Baird models. In fact, the first television image, transmitted in 1925 from John Logie Baird’s laboratory, was a heavily made-up ventriloquist’s dummy called ‘Stooky Bill’.

The first British radio play, Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, was staged in July 1930 on a Baird Televisor. This incredible 1963 recreation by the original producer using a refitted Televisor demonstrates the slow, characterful acting demanded of 30-line resolution:

By 1930, higher-definition electronic analogue televisions were in commercial production, and Baird himself demonstrated 120-line projection television in colour at the Dominion Theatre in 1938. By the 1940s, electronic analogue television had completely replaced the inferior mechanical systems (the BBC switched to electronic Marconi-EMI systems in 1935).

Despite its short lifespan, the original Baird Televisor achieved something extraordinary. It introduced televisions and broadcasting to the public, and paved the way for greater invention and competition. The Televisor promised technology ‘only dreamed of by writers of fiction’: live, moving pictures, transmitted near-immediately across land and sea. Its futuristic claims were supported in its advertising material by the use of photomechanical printing which, just like its product, brought a true-to-life image before the viewer’s eyes.

In an age where even 24-hour cable seems antiquated, and media is increasingly mediated by our own schedules, it’s mindblowing to consider the technological effort that went into making audiovisual entertainment possible. Next time you’re bored of Netflix, remember poor John Logie Baird working overtime just to make a blurry face flicker on a monochrome screen…


Further reading and resources:

  • Donald F. McLean, Restoring Baird’s Image (a selection is available here via Google Books).
  • The Early Television Museum – resource for all mechanical, pre- and post-war televisions and broadcasting.
  • Baird Television – website dedicated to John Logie Baird’s career and inventions.
  • Bonhams – Televisor sold for £21,000 at auction in 2017.
  • Wikipedia entry for ‘Stooky Bill‘.