Andrew Emmerson review

British Journal for the History of Science,
Vol 34, Part 2, No.121, June 2001
by Andrew Emmerson

“Ask most Britons who invented television and the answer will come John Logie Baird. Far fewer could tell you what he achieved and when, however, and it’s precisely that haziness that this new book serves to clarify.

What’s more, Restoring Baird’s Image does it remarkably well, covering not only Baird’s contribution to television and allied sciences but providing a conspectus in miniature of television development down to present times, whiles still keeping its subject within bounds. Moreover, the author’s passion for his subject (and scholarship) shine clearly through, making this book the most authoritative book on Baird’s work yet published. But why is a new book necessary on, to quote the author, ‘Britain’s foremost television pioneer’? Surely his achievements must be well enough known already?

Remarkably they are not, having been badly misrepresented by both his admirers and his detractors. Certain historians have done his memory no favours by ascribing to him unspecified (and unproven) secret defence work during World War II, whilst many others have belittled Baird’s work and criticised him for not developing television into the fully electronic system that it became.

Yet Baird remains the first person in the world to have demonstrated television and it was without doubt he who led Britain into the new television age. Without the benefit of major research departments, he developed and implemented working solutions that produced a fully working entertainment system that satisfied Britain’s viewers for several years. He subsequently developed television systems for aerial reconnaissance use and a colour television process that more than satisfied the expectations of the time, then died in undeserved obscurity.

All these subjects and more are covered in Restoring Baird’s Image but the book is far more than the reappraisal of Baird’s work that its clever title implies. As well as chronicling a complex and poorly understood era of television history, the book presents the author’s remarkable achievement in restoring original recordings of Baird programmes made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Some of these gramophone disc recordings had long since been known but were considered unplayable; others had been made at home by enthusiasts and contained images of programmes unseen since the time and considered lost forever.

Through Donald McLean’s skill and determination these scratchy recordings have been transcribed and restored to an extremely high standard, giving the present generation their first sight of what viewers watched nearly seventy years ago. These restorations disprove convincingly the received wisdom that Baird’s 30-line pictures were barely recognisable and oblige us to reassess this era of television programme making. Anyone with an interest in the technicalities of the restoration process will find this section of the book particularly absorbing; I know I did!

Beyond this McLean explains in great clarity how these video recordings could be made long before the process was considered feasible, how they came to be lost and how the BBC was transmitting television entertainment before most people acknowledged television broadcasting had even started. His style is clear, readable and interesting.

Disappointments are few and relate mainly to presentation. Thankfully for such a visual subject, the study is richly illustrated but as with so many books today, the paper used does no justice to the halftone illustrations, which are muddy and really deserve art paper. Other publishers manage it even for specialist titles but we must not forget that the IEE has a professed policy of charging its books at top price on publication and then remaindering them once initial sales have abated. A major and most disappointing omission is anything by which the reader can judge the restored images of Baird. A computer CD-ROM would have enhanced the book’s value immensely and increased the cover price by only a little; this is presumably a decision of the publisher. But then why is no pointer given to the author’s excellent website on the Internet, where these images can be viewed?

These gripes aside, this is an excellent book that is unlikely to be equalled and one for which the author can take due credit.”