John Logie Baird with his mechanical television.

The mechanical television will truly blow your mind

The television is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, something that completely changed the whole media landscape forever. All you Netflix addicts and streaming freaks out there should take note: there was once a time when radio was considered new-fangled, and when the idea of transmission of images into the home seemed to be as far-fetched as spaceflight or teleportation. Nowadays, when digital platforms have meant that anything from a screen is capable of receiving transmissions, it's easy to forget about the humble origins of the television. In stark contrast to the sleek, flat-screened, high definition devices that we have in our homes today, the television was once a gigantic, cumbersome contraption. A Rube Goldberg engine could fill a room unto itself, and still only project grey, grainy images for short periods. In fact, there was a time when the TV wasn't even electric. These were the days of the mechanical television.

So, to examine the origins of this machine properly, we need to travel back to the 1920s and follow the life story of a humble Scottish inventor named John Logie Baird. Born in the port town of Helensburgh in Argyll, Baird was a thin and shy man who was known as something of an eccentric by his contemporaries. Chronically unwell and seemingly always chilled to the bone, Baird boasted an intuitive fascination with all things mechanical and was tinkering around with machinery from an early age.

John Logie Baird with his mechanical television. Credit: Getty

At the time, the city of Glasgow was one of the main industrial centres of the British Empire, renowned for its shipyards in particular. Baird became an apprentice engineer and later studied engineering at Glasgow University. The sudden outbreak of WWI interrupted his studies, however, and he was forced to seek work producing munitions for a time. He never completed his studies but when the war was over he travelled to live in Hastings to put his engineering skills to good use.

It must have been hard to recognise the fact that mild-mannered Baird was preparing to build what would soon be one of the most significant inventions of modern times; his early inventions were almost all failures, although his determination to refine and improve them was dogged. First he attempted to create artificial diamonds by heating graphite, however the process ended up shorting out Glasgow's electricity supply. Later, Baird invented a glass razor which was rust-resistant, but it shattered. But it was in London that he was able to pursue his real passion: the transmission of a moving image. To do that, he created his "tele-vision" out of parts that looked more like something from a weaving machine. 

Baird's triumph was not his alone: he built upon successful innovations that had been made by his forebears and integrated them into one complete system. Arthur Korn had already created signal-conditioning circuits capable of image transmission, which allowed him to fax pictures over vast distances. The fact that he was capable of transmitting still images convinced Baird that the use of compensation circuits might allow him to build a similar device to project moving ones: a magical lantern show where the operator could project from any location to any place, even multiple times if necessary.

The first device, the embryonic stage of the modern television set, was constructed out of a mish-mash of different materials, including an old tea chest, an empty biscuit box, and several cardboard discs. It operated by exploiting another technological development: Nipkow discs. These were spinning discs, which were filled with more holes than cheddar cheese. The transmitter would shine light through them, hitting the object being filmed as the discs spun; the light then hit a sensor, which would capture the pattern and transmit an electrical signal, via radio waves, to a far-off receiver. This receiver would transmit the image onto its own Nipkow disc, which was rotating in sync with the original, in order to create a reproduction.

Compared to the crisp, high definition images we view today, Baird's TV could only project a few dim silhouettes and the outline of a paper mask initially. Baird struggled to find any potential investors for his new invention. But as luck would have it, the owner of Selfridges, London's ritziest new department store, took an interest and allowed the young Scot to display his miracle machine in the shop in a bid to attract customers. Baird would show the amazed people in the foyer a projection of a plaster ventriloquist's dummy called Stooky Bill. Baird was forced to transmit to transmit a picture of the dummy, because the incandescent lights were too hot for a human being to stand under for any length of time.

John Logie Baird with his mechanical television. Credit: Getty

For the next few years, Baird attempted to refine his machine, but eventually, his mechanical television lost out to the electronic iteration, which was invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927. Instead of using moving disks, Farnsworth's machine used electronic signals which transmitted images with superior fidelity and resolution. Eventually, Baird too developed his own model of the electronic television, and the rest is history. Today we can watch TV anywhere and anytime, but once the television was thought of as nothing more than a cumbersome novelty. I wonder what Baird would think if he had lived to see the 21st century: a time of LED screens and 1080p videos? It would probably blow his mind as much as his mechanical device blows mine.