How they watched TV in Leeds, nine years before it was invented

PRESCIENCE doesn't begin to describe the mood of the gathering in a lecture room at Leeds University exactly 90 years ago.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 17th November 2017, 5:12 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 1:01 pm
John Logie Baird
John Logie Baird

The keynote speaker had been on his feet for only around 10 minutes when the suggestion was made to form a society to explore in more detail the subject of which he spoke - the fascinating and emerging medium of television.

The fact that TV hadn’t been invented yet was not seen as an impediment.

The speaker was the eccentric Scots inventor John Logie Baird, and the organisation formed within his audience was the Television Society, the first group of its kind in the world.

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Melvyn Bragg at Leeds University

A typewritten piece of quarto paper from 1927 notes that the proposal was made by Mr WO Mitchell, seconded by Lt Col J Robert Yelf and carried unanimously by “a very large audience”.

The paper will be back on the table on Monday, when members of what is now the Royal Television Society return to its birthplace for an anniversary celebration.

The ITV studios on Kirkstall Road will host the 90th birthday party, and the connection with Leeds University will be rekindled with a keynote speech from its Chancellor, the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

Baird, who would in 1929 demonstrate an early version of his Televisor apparatus to a viewing audience numbering exactly 29, had come to Leeds on a speaking tour to promote television in general and his night vision device, which he called Noco-vision, in particular.

Melvyn Bragg at Leeds University

His audience in the university’s education department, around half of whom were said to be female, included a number of scientists from the august British Association, who had travelled from London for the event.

“Baird was a great self-publicist and his audience was a obviously enthralled,” said Clare Colvin, an archivist with the Society.

“He had this Televisor, an electric camera, and he demonstrated it to the group.”

At the time, even radio was still a novelty and the first regularly scheduled BBC TV transmissions, to the London area only, were still nine years away.

“Our early members were a lot of engineers who were making their own television sets at home,” said Ms Colvin.

The system Baird was touting was mechanical, not electronic, and a far cry from the television receivers that became commonplace in the following decades.

“His definition of a practical demonstration was being able to get a picture from one room to another,” said Don McLean, chairman of the Society’s history advisory group,

Baird succeeded in making the world’s first video recording - but did not invent a means of playing it back, and it was only in the 1990s when it was reverse engineered to replay the original picture.

His 1929 experiment required that the sound and pictures be broadcast separately, several minutes apart, due to the shortage of available transmitters.

“It was called an experiment because the Baird company was not allowed by law to actually broadcast anything of any entertainment value,” Mr McLean said.

His early sets did not contain loudspeakers or other audio equipment and relied instead on viewers picking up the sound on their radio receivers.

Although the reason for Baird’s choice of Leeds as his speaking venue is lost in time - there was no significant TV experimentation known to be taking place in the city at the time - Mr McLean suspects it might have been cooked up in advance.

“He was relying on money coming in to fund what he was doing,” he said. “So he was good at getting the public interested and he understood what they might buy.”