The Inventor Who Had Exactly the Wrong Name
What's in a name? Sometimes a little confusion...
Hollis Baird (1905-1990) was an inventor, entrepreneur, and, eventually, engineering teacher. Born along the Maine/New Brunswick border, by the mid-1920s Baird had made his way to Boston. He was active in the exciting field of television—in the 1920s and ‘30s. We usually associate television with the prosperous years after World War II, but inventors had been attempting to send pictures over radio waves for many decades. One of the few surviving Baird televisions is in the collections of The Henry Ford.
Mechanical television is based on the premise that a spinning disk can scan an image to be sent by radio, which can then be received by another spinning disk synchronized to the first. Hollis Baird produced televisions as the Baird Receiver Company from 1925-8, after which he founded a company with A.M. Morgan and Butler Perry called the Shortwave and Television Laboratory. Shortwave and Television sold radios and mechanical televisions and, beginning in April 1929, operated Boston’s second experimental television station, W1WX (later known as W1XAV,) which transmitted 60-line mechanical television images, including a speech by Boston’s mayor in 1931.
The television (39.554.1) is a Shortwave and Television Laboratory Model 26/36, sold as a kit or as a finished set. This was the viewer; it would have been connected to a radio receiver. That’s a 3” screen, for watching narrow-band television programming.
Historian of television and The Henry Ford volunteer Tom Genova operates a television history website, where he has put up a wonderful Shortwave and Television Laboratory brochure from 1930 called The Romance and Reality of Television. The brochure clearly explains how mechanical television works and seems aimed at a broader audience than the radio amateurs who usually bought early televisions.
After Shortwave and Television Laboratory dissolved operations in 1935, Baird and his colleagues founded a new company called General Television Corporation. During this time Baird also taught radio telegraphy at a school in Boston. After General Television, too, was shuttered in 1941, Hollis Baird moved on to a career as an educator. He taught electrical engineering and physics at Northeastern University’s Lincoln Institute, starting in 1942 as part of the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. He retired in 1976 after a long career as professor and administrator.
Baird had the fortune—or misfortune—of sharing his last name with John Logie Baird, one of the inventors of mechanical television. The colorful Scottish inventor and entrepreneur (early products included soap and socks for trench warfare) demonstrated television at London’s Selfridge’s department store in 1925 and had convinced the BBC to produce television programming through the 20s and 30s.
On this side of the Atlantic, Hollis Baird, who was no relation, took pains in Baird Receiver Company advertising to say that his products were not, in fact, made by the other Baird. The fact that he needed to put disclaimers in his advertisements indicates that this was a common problem, one that Hollis Baird probably didn’t mind if it led to better sales. But the name confusion has meant that Hollis Baird’s name has been mostly occluded by John Logie Baird’s. Even experts were confused: when this television was last on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, the label identified it as a John Logie Baird TV. Luckily, this Baird television is such a compelling object that it rewards further research—uncovering the story of an American inventor in a field that no longer exists.
Thanks to Michelle Romero at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections for research assistance.
Suzanne Fischer is former Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.