The Glasgow transmission that made TV history

By Kaite Welsh

Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel has seen its fair share of celebrity over the years.

The Rolling Stones strutted down its famous staircase, JFK had lunch there and famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy stayed there every time they visited the city, once even causing a riot.

But their level of fame wouldn’t have been possible without an invention that had its launch on the fourth floor of that very hotel in 1927 - the television.

Born in Helensburgh in 1888, John Logie Baird studied electrical engineering at the Royal Technical College in Glasgow before World War I interrupted his studies. Afterwards, he established his own business and set about trying to build what at the time was the holy grail of electrical engineers - the television.

His first inventions were made with whatever materials he had to hand - without a corporate sponsor, he had to resort to Blue Peter levels of ingenuity. His first ‘televisor’ was made up of cardboard, glue, string, wax, a biscuit tin and a bicycle lamp.

His first success was in 1924, when he managed to transmit a flickering image a few feet away. The next year, he was able to send the image between rooms using his ventriloquist dummy, Stooky Bill, as his muse.

Baird was triumphant: “The image of the dummy’s head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me an almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement.”

After some refinements, his invention was ready for a public performance and on 26 January 1926 he demonstrated his machine before 50 scientists from the Royal Institute. It was the first time that televised moving images were seen, and it impressed his audience.

One spectator said that “The image as transmitted was faint and often blurred, but substantiated a claim that through the ‘televisor,’ as Mr. Baird has named his apparatus, it is possible to transmit and reproduce instantly the details of movement, and such things as the play of expression on the face.”

But Baird wasn’t the only player in the game, and in 1927 a telecast took place in America between two AT&T Bell Labs stations in New York and Washington DC, transmitting over a distance of 225 miles.

Secretary of State (later to be President) Herbert Hoover gave a live broadcast.

“Today we have, in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the world’s history,” Hoover said. “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.”

While 225 miles may have been impressive, the next month saw Baird nearly double the distance when he transmitted the first truly long-distance television pictures - between London and his home city of Glasgow.

On May 27, 1927, the epoch-defining blurry pictures were beamed along a full 438 miles of telephone lines between London and a room on the fourth floor of the Grand Central Hotel.

And that was just the start.

Baird followed that up by founding the Baird Television Development Company Ltd, and a year later made the first transatlantic television transmission, between London and New York.

Today, the naming of the Grand Central Hotel's John Logie Baird Suite pays homage to the Helensburgh engineer's historic 1927 feat.

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