BBC TV, famed for such nation-capturing programmes as Playschool and Great British Bake Off, celebrated its 80th birthday last November. It did so in the same week that watching the country's then most popular TV programme, The Crown, required neither the BBC nor a TV set. Just a Netflix account and a connected mobe.
With the exception of Private Eye, practically nobody spotted the irony until the moment had already passed.
Mostly, the anniversary itself passed off unnoticed. This was helped by the Beeb itself by celebrating the momentous occasion with little more than a concert and a nod before moving on to the next round of delicate meetings with government to discuss the renewal of its public charter.
However, it wasn't the only TV technology-related anniversary to slip under the UHF last year, either. Not only did 2016 signify 80 years of official TV broadcasting in Britain, it also marked 90 years since television was first experienced by any human on Earth other than its inventor, John Logie Baird.
On 26 January 1926, Baird invited 40 members of the Royal Institution to his workshop above 22 Frith Street, London, to watch him demonstrate the live transmission of an image of a moving face "by radio". For all the experiments in the early 1920s with moving silhouettes transmitted by wireless, notably by American inventor Charles Francis Jenkins as well as Baird himself, the 22 Frith Street event is regarded as the world's first public demonstration of television.
The anniversary came and went unnoticed. Or perhaps tech media chaps like us decided to put the Champagne back in the cellar for another decade so that those still alive in 2026 can throw a really big centenary party instead. This assumes, of course, that television will still exist in a recognisable form – synchronised moving images and sound broadcast in real time over the airwaves – 10 years from now.
Now the IEEE has stepped in to put things right.
Engineering and tech landmarks
On the afternoon of 26 January 2017 – exactly 91 years to the day since Baird demonstrated his mechanical apparatus to his Royal Institution guests – volunteers from IEEE gathered at 22 Frith Street for a ceremony to unveil a bronze street plaque dedicated to the invention of television.
IEEE, the worldwide organisation of technical professionals, funds a history programme called Milestones, which commemorates significant advances in engineering and technology. There are some 170 of these IEEE Milestone plaques dotted around the planet so far, ranging from the invention of the transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey (1947) to the first breaking of the Enigma Code by the Polish Cypher Bureau in Warsaw (1932-39) – and yes, there is one at Bletchley Park too.
Before this week, a mere dozen IEEE Milestone plaques had been dedicated in Britain, including those for such key technical inventions as the invention of public key cryptography at GCHQ (1969-75), Benjamin Franklin's work with electricity during his intermittent periods of residence in London (1757-75), and Alan Dower Blumlein's invention of stereo sound recording (1931). This last-named Milestone plaque is mounted at the front door of Abbey Road Studios.
The plaque at Frith Street has become the 13th on these shores. In attendance at the unveiling were a small gathering of IEEE members and officers, several of whom had flown across the world for the ceremony, along with bemused passers-by and tourists weaving westward through Soho on their way to Carnaby Street, plus bigwigs from the Italian embassy invited by the owner of the Bar Italia restaurant that currently occupies the Frith Street building.
Unveiled by Baird's grandson Iain and IEEE president Karen Bartleson, the plaque joins two existing memorials already at the site: a classic blue English heritage plaque commemorating the same event, and one found indoors acknowledging the first British transmission of HD television – which has no direct relevance to either Baird or the location and was probably just a PR stunt for Sky TV.
Why the long TV race?
It may seem curious from a modern perspective that it took a whole decade after 1926 to transform Baird's working gadget into even a meagre initial public broadcasting service on these shores. Over in the US, the world's first television station began transmitting from General Electric as early as 1928, albeit without sound.
Holding back the Brits was a mix of technical issues and politics. Launched in 1922, the British Broadcasting Company Ltd began life as a commercial entity but by the end of 1926 had been transformed into a Crown-chartered corporation. In those early years under state ownership, it felt it had to take the James May approach to everything it did: that is, "done properly". And for that, read: "done slowly".
John Logie Baird saw himself as an entrepreneurial inventor with something to sell. Unfortunately, in the UK there was only one buyer and it had just become state-owned.
Baird's investors were keen for the BBC to take up the technology as soon as possible, but the corporation was dissatisfied with the image quality and were reluctant to go ahead. Even when Baird offered to set up and run some experimental broadcasts on the BBC's behalf using the corporation's medium-wave transmitters, the offer was turned down. Only under pressure from the Post Office did the BBC eventually permit the first tests, at the end of 1929.
Baird's initial device worked by shining a bright light through the spirally arranged holes in a spinning "Nipkow" disc to scan and, at the receiving end, project a meagre 30-line greyscale image. He worked on enhancing the system, and by 1930 the BBC had managed to synchronise the images with sound and began broadcasting to the London homes of a couple of hundred lucky beta testers.
Switch on the wireless, would you?
However, as the economic depression of the early 1930s took its toll, the BBC's governing body began questioning the expense of all this television testing for the sake of a handful of wealthy Londoners when it already had a multimillion-strong market of avid radio listeners to satisfy. The push was on to get a public television service launched that would be worthy of the money thrown at it so far.
More engineers were brought on to the project from industry, including the aforementioned Alan Dower Blumlein, who was working at EMI in the days when it was leader in so many fields. A partnership between EMI and Marconi had produced the cathode ray tube, which boasted a 405-line image and higher frame rate. Baird's mechanical systems were quickly looking clunky compared with the electronic image scanners that were being developed.
As the BBC tried to extricate itself from its deal with Baird in favour of the Marconi-EMI system, a government-appointed committee – the Selsdon inquiry – decided in 1934 that the corporation should launch its regular television service using both solutions.
Committees, eh? This probably explains why it took nearly two more years to get the service up and running. The BBC moved its television operation into Alexandra Palace, by then a crumbling old multi-purpose venue erected by the Victorians on a hill in north London, erected a huge antenna and began test transmissions during September 1926.
Baird was quickly forced to admit that his mechanical system, even enhanced, couldn't compete with Marconi-EMI. After a brief lull, the BBC TV officially launched its public television service using the latter in "high definition" – at the time, meaning 240 lines – on 2 November.
This was not the last the BBC had heard from Baird. When television broadcasting was set to resume in Britain after the end of the Second World War, he briefly persuaded the authorities to seriously consider Telechrome, a 1,000-line electronic colour system that he'd developed – a far cry from the existing 405-line black-and-white standard. Unfortunately, post-war reconstruction put the project on the back burner and Baird died of a stroke in June 1946.
The day after the unveiling of the Milestone plaque, the IEEE hosted a day of commemoration and technical lectures at the Royal Institution, looking at Baird's legacy, how television has changed since its beginnings and how it might look in the future.
One certainly wonders what television would have been like today if someone had allowed Baird to roll out the equivalent of HD TV back in 1945. There's a potential mini-series in it, for sure. Someone call Netflix. ®