Ninety years ago, John Logie Baird became the first person to demonstrate a working television, in front of a group of 50 scientists in London. Incredibly, one of his colleagues who witnessed that momentous day is still alive to recount how the Scottish inventor changed the world.
Andy Andrews, now 104, was 14 years old when he left school to work as an apprentice engineer with Baird.
The young lad from London with a “love of fixing things” remembers the extraordinary impact on the audience of that 1926 demonstration.
“They didn’t believe it… the pictures were a bit of a blur but it was amazing, they were all absolutely flabbergasted by it,” recalls the centenarian.
An exciting flourish of activity followed, which saw Baird send pictures from London to Glasgow via phone line the following year, and send the first TV pictures under the sea to the USA in 1928.
He would also put on expensive demonstrations to show off his beloved “televisor” at places like Selfridges, in the hope of capturing the imagination of the general public, although he would barely break even.
The pictures in those early tests were not always clear. Mr Andrews, who worked on the transmitters, remembers the team using the head of a mannequin with bright orange hair in their experiments.
“It was fun to be working on something so special,” he says. “There was great excitement. Lots of people thought it was all a trick. We surprised people.
“It was a happy time. We were never bothered about the hours we worked, we just carried on and on and on.”
Who was John Logie Baird?
Baird was “without a doubt the pioneer of television”, according to Catherine Booth, science curator at the National Library of Scotland.
Born on 14 August 1888 in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, he was educated at the Royal Technical College and the University of Glasgow.
Plagued by ill health for most of his life, Baird was declared medically unfit to serve in World War One, working instead for an electric company.
By 1923 he had set up a laboratory in a bedroom in Hastings to experiment with mechanical television, but was evicted after electrocuting himself.
After giving the world’s first demonstration of television in January 1926, Baird went on to invent a camera for outside broadcasts in the early 1930s.
Later in the decade the BBC carried out a side-by-side trial between his television system and the alternative Marconi-EMI one.
“Marconi was a huge company with lots of technicians and backing from America,” Ms Booth explains. “It proved more reliable and was finally the one that was chosen, and Baird was gutted at that.
“But the company continued to make receivers and by 1939 they were employing 600 people, so it was flourishing but not quite in the way he wanted.”
He died aged 57 on 14 June 1946 in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex.
The new technology attracted interest from far and wide, with one mystery man “always trying to sneak in to find out what it was all about”.
Sadly for the trespasser, the workshop doorway was really narrow – Baird, described as a slight man, did not need much space to slip through.
“He lost all the fancy buttons from his waistcoat [trying to squeeze into the laboratory],” Mr Andrews says of the intruder.
And, unfortunately for Baird, there was also competition.
When the BBC launched its television service in 1936, his mechanical system went up against Marconi-EMI’s all-electronic system.
Then a fire broke out at Crystal Palace, where Baird’s team laboratory was based, and much of his equipment and paperwork went up in smoke.
Mr Andrews, who now lives in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, was working on the night of the fire and tried to save as much as he could.
But it was a “disaster” for Baird, costing him 100,000 [about 5m in today’s money] at a crucial time for the company.
“A great effort was made to preserve it all as far as we were able. But we lost things, it was inevitable.”
In a further blow for Baird, in 1937 the BBC officially chose Marconi-EMI as its preferred system.
When World War Two broke out television was temporarily shut down and the team moved into war work – Mr Andrews invented a microphone used to track the Germans.
Afterwards Mr Andrews, affectionately nicknamed the “mad professor” by his family because he was always making things, set up his own factory manufacturing transformers.
There were highs and lows, but as far as he is concerned, Baird was always a “great man” who “made a wonderful invention and he deserved all the praise for it”.
“A lot of us helped him in our various ways but he was the nicest man one could wish to be connected with.
“He was a good colleague. If somebody had a good idea he would pursue it for them and with them.
“He was also very clever, kind and honest. I’d like to see a few more around like him. I never got tired of working with him. He always gave credit where it was due.
“He never claimed credit like Marconi. Marconi never invented anything in his whole life. He always claimed it because he paid his workers’ wages.”
And what would Baird make of today’s TV?
“I think he would be quite pleased, but also disappointed in a way,” Mr Andrews says.
“It’s made a difference to people’s thinking. It’s made them far more alert to the possibility of changes, very often for the better, but not always.
“TV has changed a lot. The method has changed inevitably. The technology was different then to what it is now. We can’t look back, we’ve got to look forward all the time.
“It’s not finished yet, there’ll be great advancements made yet that you will see and appreciate as time goes by.”