My ‘London Shoes’ blog for this week took me to ‘Frith Street’ in deepest Soho, an area where I spent 4 happy years working for Barclays Bank in my late teens, from 1974 to 1978.
However, throughout the time I worked there, although I knew about the actual ‘place’ of my visit, and had frequented it a few times over the years – I never knew about the actual ‘significance’ of the location in terms of its historical importance….which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what the location is famous for today, and throughout the past 60 odd years.
Since 1949, 22 Frith Street, Soho, London W1 has been the home of the famous ‘Bar Italia’ – an ‘independent’ 24/7 coffee shop that has been a daytime/late night/early morning stopping-off point for generations of office workers, theatre goers and late night revelers frequenting the pubs, clubs (and other ‘establishments’) of Soho.
However, way back in in 1926 in a room way up in its attic – 22 Frith Street was the birthplace of one of the greatest inventions ever, that has subsequently touched the lives of everyone on this planet…………”Television”!!!!
And this is how it all happened.
In 1888, Scotsman John Logie Baird was born in the seaside town of Helensburgh, some 30 miles or so west of Glasgow.
He was not the healthiest of children, and his physical weaknesses plagued him with ill health throughout his life.
Throughout his schooling, although not the fittest of kids, Baird was known for having a curious and brilliant mind that was fascinated by ‘technology’, especially anything concerning the science behind electronics and radio transmissions – and he was often looked upon as being something of a ‘mad-scientist’.
One of the topics that particularly concerned and interested him was the potential possibility of whether ‘moving images’ could ever be transmitted.
He had been toying with this concept for a number of years – and had located himself down in Hastings, where he had a workshop – having moved down there in the early 1920’s for health reasons.
However, in 1924 he had to leave Hastings promptly, when one of his ‘moving image’ transmitter experiment contraptions, exploded – prompting his landlord to chuck him out.
John Logie Baird ended up in London having found an attic room to rent at ’22 Frith Street’ in Soho – which he then converted into a workshop to enable him to continue with his new invention.
The attic space in Frith Street was large, and had to be, as the contraptions that Logie Baird was building and experimenting with, were bulky and very noisy – as they were made up of large spinning discs, numerous flickering light stands plus quite powerful engines to make them all work.
Funds were very tight for Logie Baird – and so to gather some public interest on what he was attempting, he approached journalists in nearby Fleet Street, and posed the question to them “Are you interested in a machine that would enable you to ‘see’ your wireless (eg radio)”????
As a result of his approach to the ‘press’ – a reporter from the Daily Express ran a story about this ‘mad inventor’, which had the effect of interesting quite a few people – including one Harry Selfridge, owner of the big department store on Oxford Street – and apparently Harry Selfridge believed in Logie Baird and what he was attempting to achieve, and so bunged him a few quid here and there, to keep him going.
Logie Baird continued to struggle with his experiments for many months – working from dawn till dusk on his contraptions up in the attic of 22 Frith Street.
He found that he could reproduce ‘static’ images on a screen, but just couldn’t work out a successful solution on how to produce ‘moving’ images.
For all his experiments he used the head of an old ventriloquist’s dummy, which he nicknamed “Stooky Bill”.
Logie Baird’s inventions seemed to be going absolutely nowhere, until, in the Autumn of 1925, when he was down to his last £30 – he suddenly had a breakthrough, when, having turned all his mechanical contraptions on, a reasonably clear image of ‘Stooky Bill’ all of a sudden presented itself on a screen!!!
Logie Baird was so excited that he had finally seemed to have found a solution to make his invention work – but he wanted to see if it would work on a living human being, and so he ran down to offices that were located on the floor below him, and asked if he could borrow the ‘office boy’ William Taynton for a couple of minutes.
He then hauled the ‘boy’ upstairs to the attic and sat him down on a chair in front of his invention. However, William Taynton was scared when confronted with all the bright lights and contraptions, and wanted to immediately return back to his office – but Logie Baird bribed him with ‘half-a-crown’ to stay and just sit there for a few minutes…….and when he did, his image appeared on the screen – making the ‘boy’ William Taynton the first ever real-life TV star.
Having completed a few more months of modifications on his machines, John Logie Baird invited a group of dignitaries from the Royal Institute, up to his room at 22 Frith Street, to demonstrate his new invention – transmitting images of ‘Stooky Bill’ and a real person. It is said that upon viewing this ground-breaking invention, and all its possibilities for the future – one dignitary commented “well… what’s the good of it – what useful purpose could it ever serve?”!!!
Following the first public demonstration Logie Baird formed the company “Baird Television Ltd” and had to move to a bigger premises just down the road at 133 Long Acre, Covent Garden.
In 1927, Logie Baird successfully transmitted ‘moving images’ from his 133 Long Acre base to a receiving ‘set’ in Glasgow – and the following year he did the same across the Atlantic to New York.
The very first actual television ‘programme’ was broadcast by Baird from 133 Long Acre on the morning of 30th September 1929.
In 1930, Baird approached the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to see if they were interested in backing his new invention and its future investment in technology.
By 1936 the BBC- were now really starting to get into this ‘television’ malarkey – and announced that they were scrapping Baird’s system in favour of more modern equipment which had been developed by Marconi-EMI – and they moved their TV operations to Alexandra Palace (the subject of a recent previous blog from me) – where their huge Marconi ariel could blast the transmission waves all over the place.
Despite the BBC taking over matters John Logie Baird’s appetite for invention remained as strong as ever – as he went on to experiment with early work on high definition colour, large-screen televisions, video recording devices and even made early ventures into infra-red, and radar for the military.
John Logie Baird died at the age of 57 on June 14th 1946 and is buried with his mother, father and wife in Helensburgh Cemetery, Argyll, Scotland.
Today, a blue plaque at 22 Frith Street commemorates John Logie Baird’s achievement, and the historical significance of the building.
Similarly, a stone plaque is displayed on the exterior walls of 133 Long Acre, Covent Garden – commemorating the fact that this was where the very first television ‘programme’ was broadcasted from.
Before setting off back home, and with it being a bit too early for me for a beer – it was only fitting that I instead grabbed a ‘cheeky’ cappo and croissant at “Bar Italia”, the residents of 22 Frith Street for the past 69 years – a legendary institution of a place, where you immediately ‘feel’ its history when you order and drink your coffee there.
So – when you next sit down comfortably to watch your Royal Weddings, your World Cups, your ‘soaps’, your films, your news, your documentaries etc etc – spare a thought for what old John Logie Baird did for us all those years ago, whilst locked away in his rented loft at 22 Frith Street in Soho.