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Eight places in London connected with the birth of television

Written by
Robert Lordan

80 years ago this month, the BBC began broadcasting a regular TV service from Alexandra Palace – an event which marked an ongoing relationship between London and the development of television. Here are eight locations associated with the birth of the box. 

Steve Daniels via Geograph

Daily Express building, Fleet Street

TV’s granddaddy was John Logie Baird, a genius inventor from Helensburgh, Scotland. After accidentally causing an explosion at his Hastings workshop in 1924, JLB moved to London where, like most newcomers, he soon found himself strapped for cash. Figuring a spot of publicity might boost his coffers, John popped to Fleet Street where he approached the editor of the Daily Express to ask if he’d be interested in printing a feature about a machine for 'seeing by wireless'. Clearly no visionary, the grumpy ed ordered one of his heavies to remove this supposed 'lunatic', uttering the words 'Watch him carefully; he may have a razor hidden!'


Robert Lordan

Selfridges, Oxford Street

One fellow with more faith in John Logie Baird was American store magnate, Harry Gordon Selfridge. Always keen to bag the next gimmick, Mr Selfridge invited JLB to host daily demonstrations of his invention in the store’s electrical department. Cobbled together from a soapbox, sheets of cardboard and various bicycle bits, JLB’s ‘Televisor’ looked more like something from ‘Blue Peter’ at this stage, and although only eerie silhouettes of objects could be glimpsed on the tiny receiving screen, John’s residency at Selfridges proved a success, marking the world’s first, public display of early TV. 

Robert Lordan

Bar Italia, Frith Street

It was in a cramped flat above what’s now Soho’s ‘Bar Italia’ where JLB grafted day and night to hone his invention. The prototype television was about as far removed from today’s flatscreens as you can imagine; a bulky, noisy contraption with spinning discs and scorching lights. The breakthrough came on October 2 1925, when ‘Stookie Bill’ – the dummy head used in experiments – suddenly beamed through in crystal clarity. Upon seeing this, John immediately felt the need to transmit a live human and so dashed downstairs to borrow an office boy named William Taynton. At first William was terrified of the bright, whirring machine but relented when offered half a crown. Like Stookie Bill, William’s face flickered into focus, essentially making him the world’s first small screen star.

Robert Lordan

133 Long Acre

Following this breakthrough, JLB moved to larger premises on Long Acre, Covent Garden where he established ‘Baird Television Ltd’. From here, he succeeded in transmitting live images to Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel and then, in 1928, all the way across the Atlantic to New York. By now John figured TV was ready for the public and so his old pal, Mr Selfridge, began stocking Baird Televisors, the world's first mass-produced sets. 

Open Government License

10 Downing Street

At around £100 a pop, JLB’s early goggle boxes were eye-wateringly expensive – the equivalent price of a new car in those days. One chap who didn’t have to worry about forking out was Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald who was gifted a set for use in 10 Downing Street. On the morning of September 30 1929, the PM and around 30 other folk in the London area tuned in to view Baird Television’s first broadcast; a grainy, 15-minute schedule featuring comedy and musical skits performed from the Covent Garden studio. Because these early broadcasts were sent via a radio antenna (mounted on top of Selfridges - yet another role the store helped in pioneering TV) sound and vision had to be sent in separate bursts, meaning the handful of viewers saw two minutes of silent images followed by two minutes of disembodied speech. The PM was so impressed he penned JLB a letter which read, 'Dear Mr Baird, I must thank you very warmly for the television instrument you have put into Downing Street. What a marvellous discovery you have made!'

Robert Lordan

Crystal Palace Park

In July 1933 Baird Television migrated south to Sydenham where the old Crystal Palace (originally designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851) still loomed large. Here, beneath the old glass hall, JLB installed what was then Europe’s largest TV centre, with three spanking new studios, experimental labs and various other facilities. Tragically the landmark building was engulfed by fire on November 30 1936, taking the studios with it.  

Robert Lordan

Alexandra Palace

At 3pm on November 2 1936 the BBC Television service officially began broadcasting from Alexandra Palace. By now a swanky new provider was on the block: Marconi-EMI, and for the first few weeks their system was trialled alongside Baird’s cameras. It didn't take long for BBC bods to scrap JLB's system in favour of EMI, a heartbreaking decision they announced just days after the Crystal Palace blaze. The BBC continued to beam TV from Ally Pally until September 1 1939 when, following a 'Mickey Mouse' cartoon and test card, the service abruptly went off air; an emergency measure trigged by the onset of WWII.  

Spudgun67 via Wikipedia

3 Crescent Wood Road

Despite soul-crushing setbacks, John Logie Baird continued to experiment with TV at his home on Crescent Wood Road, an address he’d moved to in order to be close to his former Crystal Palace complex. Here, in a small lab built in the garden, he tinkered with high colour definition, video recording, infrared and even 3D. It’s also believed he conducted top secret work on the radar network during WWII. Sadly, John suffered poor health throughout his life and he died on June 14 1946 aged just 57. Next time you settle down to your favourite show, spare him a thought

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