Today (January 26) in London History – a Kenspeckle Moment

January 26, 1926 – the first demonstration of television. The world would never be the same again. Happened in London. Of course. Here’s the story.


We’re going for a little walk today. We’ll take the Tube to Leicester Square, exit the station right by Wyndham’s Theatre, cross Charing Cross Road, turn right, walk up Charing Cross Road, take the fifth turning on the left – that’s Old Compton Street. Stroll along Old Compton Street and take the second turning on the right into Frith Street. 

Ok, now we’re looking for the famous Bar Italia clock on the right-hand side, just a little way up Frith Street.  Hmmm. Should be there but it’s not. That’s curious. But no matter. What we’re also looking for is No. 22 Frith Street. And there it is. Through the door we go and up the steps. All the way up. To the top storey, the loft.

Now just one thing. Something about the walk up here from Leicester Square Station. No cellphones – how weird is that. No earbuds. And nothing but old fashioned cars. Every chap, young and old, wearing a hat. Quite a few old fashioned double-breasted suits. It’s a little bit like a London version of that Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. Every night at midnight the Owen Wilson 21st century character finds himself in 1920s Paris, hobnobbing with the likes of a young Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Well, never mind. Maybe they’re doing up Charing Cross Road and Old Compton Street and Frith Street for a 1920s period drama and we’ve just walked through a film set. Might explain it. 

Doesn’t explain it, though.

What does explain it is it’s not January 26th, 2022. It’s Tuesday, January 26th, 1926. (That’s why the Bar Italia and its famous clock is not there – the Bar Italia didn’t come along until 1949. We’re in 1926.

And we’ve made it up to the top of 22 Frith Street. It’s a converted loft. Two rooms. Lots of apparatus in both of them. Lots of fairly distinguished-looking gentlemen milling about. And the bespectacled chap holding forth – can you hear him – that’s a strong Scottish accent he’s got.

Ok, enough make-believe. Let’s do our history. The bespectacled Scottish fellow explaining all the apparatus is John Logie Baird. He’s an inventor. The distinguished-looking gentlemen are from the Royal Institute. John Logie Baird has invited them to his Frith Street loft apartment-cum-workshop to demonstrate something he’s invented. The Times newspaper has sent a man along. He’ll headline his story – it’ll run in The Times on Thursday – The Televisor. The Times Subtitled the story: Successful test of new apparatus.

The new apparatus was of course television. Television in its infancy.

And today was its first formal demonstration. Those Royal Institute gentlemen looking at each other with a wild surmise – had just watched what nobody had seen before: television. And I hasten to add, they weren’t all bowled over. One of the less visionary members of the Royal Institute said, “well, what’s the good of it? What useful purpose will it serve?” 

And if you’re going to be a purist about it, January 26th, 1926 wasn’t the birth moment for television. It was the first time the newborn was shown to the world, as it were. The 40 Royal Institute members were like the three wise men who’d followed the star to Bethlehem. The actual birth had occurred a few months before, on October 2nd, 1925 to be precise. You could say it was the birth of twins. First one out was the preposterously named – and even more preposterously looking – Stooky Bill. Stooky Bill was the name John Logie Baird gave to a seen-better-days ventriloquist’s dummy head. He managed to bring up an image of Stooky Bill on the receptor apparatus he’d created. Eureka. Baird was so excited he ran downstairs and collared an office boy, one William Taynton. Marched him upstairs. Put him in front of the camera. Drew a blank. Stooky Bill had been equal to the bright lights and the whirring discs. But not young William Taynton. He was Spooky Bill. He was spooked by the whole thing. Did a runner. Shied away from the camera. Laird realised what had happened. Collared him. Got him back into position. Made him hit the mark and hold it this time. I like to think that maybe young William – Spooky Bill – was clinging to Stooky Bill when it happened. And it did happen. There he was on the receptor. A living, breathing human being. Office boy William Taynton. The world’s first television star. And sure enough, filthy lucre got in on the ground floor. Logie had to slip the office boy half a crown to persuade him to stay put so the contraption could do its thing, show its stuff.

What an afternoon. Twenty minutes later a group of Soho prostitutes were banging on Logie Baird’s door. They’d spotted the contraption through the window and assumed it was some sort of telescope and he was spying on them. They wanted to know what he was on about.

And just a few more brushstrokes, make the picture a bit more complete, less fuzzy and wavering. 

John Logie Baird was born in 1888. In Dunbartonshire, west of Glasgow. He was one of those kids who took things apart and put ‘em back together. Wanted to know how things worked. Became an electrical engineer. But he also had a bit of Barnum in him, had some marketing flair. The engineering was always there but he also tried his hand at flogging stuff. His wares included medicated socks, boot polish, solid scent – at first you think, what, solid scent, who’d want solid scent? But if it’s something on a chain round your neck or hanging from your ear lobes, it’s got staying power doesn’t it – anyway, yes, solid scent, jam, honey, fertilizer, coconut fibre and soap. The soap to see off the medicated socks, fertilizer, boot polish and solid scent smells. In a weird way, it all does sort of hang together. 

But in the end it was the televisor that was his Cleopatra. The televisor – just a gleam in the eye of the chap who’d first proposed it. That was in 1878. “Seeing at a distance” was the verbal formulation it was given back then, back when it was just a gleam in somebody’s eye. The Televisor. John Logie Baird’s Cleopatra. Age could not wither nor customer stale her infinite appeal. Which, when you think about it, is probably why we’ve all been pretty much in thrall to the beast ever since. Or we can draw on another old classical tale to illustrate the matter. Think of 22 Frith Street as the bottle. Out of that Soho bottle came the genie known as television. And Aladdin, well, that was John Logie Baird, wasn’t it. 

Anything else? Indeed, there is. As a journalist I found it very interesting to see which newspapers were across the story and how they broke it. The Times is widely credited with getting the scoop. They didn’t scoop. Their story on what they called “The Televisor” moved two days after the Frith Street demonstration. The Telegraph beat them by two and a half weeks. In its January 11th, 1926 story the Telegraph called it Wireless Vision. 

But first across the finish line, The Guardian – it was the Manchester Guardian in those days. On January 9th it ran a story headlined “Sending Photographs by Wireless.” And the first word of that Guardian story? “Television.” Pretty spot on, I’d say. The inverted commas – the quotation marks they put around the word to set it off – an indication that this was virgin territory. The full sentence read – quoting John Logie Baird’s business partner Captain O.G. Hutchinson – “‘Television’ or the transmission by wireless of photographs and the likeness of living people is, according to Captain O.G. Hutchinson, to play an important part in wireless broadcasting before the end of 1926.”

And two days before that, on January 9, the Guardian ran a story – this will be the scoop story – headlined IN CAPITAL LETTERS, with a question: BROADCASTING IN “TELEVISION?” With the word television, there it is, the first time ever in newsprint, set off with those inverted commas, those quotation marks. 

Ok, to end, a couple of takeaway nuggets. And an unashamed plug for a London Walk. 1. The first proper television broadcast was made on September 30, 1929. It had an audience of 30 people. The World Cup in 2014 had 3.2 billion viewers. But hey, a receptor then cost the same as you’d have to fork out for a new car.

And 2. 

Three months after the genie was let out of the bottle there at 22 Frith Street, the Telegraph ran a story that showed how much progress had been made with the new medium. Headlining the story Listening In and Seeing In, the Telegraph told of a member of the Press being persuaded to submit himself to the transmitting end of the apparatus. He was immediately recognised by his colleagues, grouped round the receptor. Recognised, as John Logie Baird, the Scotsman who invented television, inimitably put it, “a kenspeckle bodie.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve just added a great new word to my vocabulary. Bodie means person or individual. Kenspeckle means conspicuous. You’re going to hear that word again come the February 18th Today in London History podcast.

3. And our plug. Our plug is our Soho walk. Runs every Friday morning. Goes to the bottle. We can look up there and just about see Aladdin, John Logie Baird, letting the genie out. Or if we identify with those Soho hookers – and hey, London Walks guides are, by definition streetwalkers – as is everybody in the merry band behind us – well, if we identify with those Soho working girls, we might well look up there and spot what we think is a telescope. And wonder who that is and why are they spying on us. 

And that’s wrap for January 26th. Wrap up. From London, wishing you, as pilots put it, blue skies and tailwinds. 

And if kenspeckle can be used adverbially, may you have lots of kenspeckley good times. Lots of conspicuously good times. 

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