Jan. 27: On this day 88 years ago, the world first saw television


Eighty-eight years ago today, the world first laid its eyes on the television.

Scottish inventor John Logie Baird first demonstrated his "televisor" on this day in 1926, by broadcasting the heads of two ventriloquist dummies. Not even a century later, Baird’s invention is in nearly 97 percent of U.S. homes.

John Logie Baird

Baird wasn’t the first to attempt this idea. German scientist Paul Nipkow first experimented with the idea, but he and other inventors were never able to get more than blobs and shadows. Baird was the first to get images that actually looked like things.

The televisor used mechanical rotation disks to scan moving images into electronic impulses. The information was then transmitted through a cable to a screen where it showed up as a low-resolution pattern of light and dark. His first working television was built MacGyver-style with household items including an old hatbox, pair of scissors, darning needles, bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest and some sealing wax.

He started small, by transmitting moving silhouette images by television, and demonstrated them at Selfridges London department store in March 1925. A few months later, in October, he successfully got his ventriloquist dummy, named “Stooky Bill," to transmit at the rate of five pictures per second (for reference, you’re used to watching television at 24 to 30 pictures per second).

He then grabbed 20-year-old office worker William Edward Taynton, who probably didn’t think he was about to make history that day, and threw him in front of the camera. After successfully broadcasting the first person on TV, Baird went to spread the word about his new invention.

He visited the Daily Express newspaper, but the news editor was apparently terrified of the inventor and his strange invention. He told 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."

Undeterred, he went on to his public demonstration, this time at 12.5 images per second, in front of members of the scientific education and research association the Royal Institution and a newspaper reporter.

Two years later, Baird made the first overseas broadcast from London to New York over a phone line and later demonstrated the first color televisions.

Though none of Baird’s early broadcasts exist, there are some reproductions, like this edited remake of the play “The Man With the Flower in his Mouth," which was broadcast from Baird’s studio in 1930.

Ilyce Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated real estate columnist, blogger and radio talk show host, and managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Glink.

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