Over the last few months I’ve become interested — the Domina would say “tediously interested” — in the old Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, apotheosised in 1912 to the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. As an institution it seems to have been a fairly major knot in the tangled network of Glaswegian commerce and society; its struggles to acquire both academic prestige and industrial relevance, while not necessarily a parallel for our own time, are at least easy to empathise with.
The authorised biography of the Tech, along with some of its precursors and its main descendant, is John Butt’s John Anderson’s Legacy (Tuckwell / University of Strathclyde 1996). The book’s main project is to co-opt earlier notions of “useful learning” for late twentieth century purposes, but here and there one finds a little nugget that’s worth excavating. One such nugget comes at the end of Chapter 5, where Butt notes that in 1908 the young John Logie Baird was “in the same class” at the College as the man who was to become television’s first great adversary, John Reith. Presumably this is well known to anyone with an interest in the history of broadcasting, and it wasn’t news to me that Baird had spent time at the Tech, but I was surprised by the intrusion of Reith. Digging a little further brings up one of those unlikely little episodes that ought to be worth either a comic-strip treatment a la Kate Beaton or Sydney Padua, or a slightly pretentious two-man Fringe production; if anyone reading this has the time and energy to realise one, I hereby waive all claims to copyright.
The only source for the first collision of Baird and Reith seems to be Baird’s splendidly entertaining memoir Sermons, Soap and Television, dictated in 1941 but published only in 1988, and containing a fair few reminiscences that are too amusing to seem strictly plausible. The opening paragraphs of Chapter 2 are devoted to the encounter.
The Technical College was an extremely efficient national institution. The students were, for the most part, poor young men desperately anxious to get on. They worked with an almost unbelievable tenacity and zeal. There were, however, a few exceptions, gentlemen’s sons, well off and with no real anxieties about their future. Among these was a tall well-built youth, the son of the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, by name John Reith…
I was… very short-sighted and, at the beginning of one of the classes, the Professor asked if those who were short-sighted and wanted front seats would hand in their names. When I went up to the platform to give him my name, three large impressive young students were talking to him. They talked on terms of equality; in fact there was a distinct aroma of patronage. The young gentlemen were of the type we would today call ‘heavies’, and they boomed with heavy joviality at the poor little Professor who was distinctly embarrassed and ill at ease. I interrupted timidly and handed him a piece of paper with my name on it. As I did so, the heaviest and most overpowering of the three ‘heavies’ turned round and boomed at me “Ha! what is the matter with you? Are you deaf or blind?” I simpered something in inaudible embarrassment and he turned his back on me, and the three ‘heavies’ walked out of the classroom booming portentously to each other.
This was the first time I saw Reith. I did not see him again for twenty years.
There follows an unusually acidic paragraph which stands out against Baird’s usual endearingly self-deprecating tone. He notes that “Reith did not distinguish himself in his examinations… The examiners awarded no marks for impressive appearances, no marks for oracular booming voices, no marks for influential relatives… All they were concerned with was the ability to absorb knowledge and regurgitate it onto an examination paper. Had marks been given for personality and for moving in exclusive circles… Reith would undoubtedly have topped the examination list. The great acquisition of knowledge counts for little in the battle of life.”
Although it’s perfectly plausible that the mechanical engineer Reith and the electrical engineer Baird would have shared classes at the Tech, where the electrical engineering syllabus was surprisingly heavy with mechanics, it’s hard to believe unreservedly in this account of their meeting. Could one really meet a fellow-student once only and take such an indelible dislike to him that one not only learned his name but followed his social and academic career from a distance? Nonetheless, it’s a vivid wee vignette, and not without irony.
The irony becomes apparent when one reads this passage in parallel with Reith’s account of the period in his own memoir, Into the Wind (1949). This is a great deal less endearing than Baird’s effort. It’s hard to make out whether Reith knew he was presenting himself as such a bundle of awkwardness and moralism, carrying enough social and emotional hang-ups to equip eight or nine normal Scotsmen, even of that era. By Reith’s account, his time at the Tech was a particularly low ebb. Having made a mess of his time at Glasgow Academy, he’d been moved — his phrase is “violent transplantation” — to a minor English public school in Norfolk; and just as he was acquiring a taste for the role of gentleman–scholar, his academic career ended and he was set to a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the North British Locomotive Company works, with sandwich courses at the Tech. Reith’s summary (Into the Wind, p. 12) is brisk and painful; Baird is, as one might expect, entirely absent.
1906-1914 — eight years between Technical College and Hydepark Locomotive Works; eight years of intellectual and social frustration. As to the College, I was unhappy there, though becoming thoroughly interested in the natural philosophy subjects and doing well in them. I was in revolt against the purely technical subjects and against most of those who purported to teach them.
Reith, by his account, was busy constructing defensive shields. At the Works: “a ferocity of countenance… An engineer’s skip cap at an aggressive angle and a rough cloth muffler instead of collar framed and enhanced the expression. Colossal bluff, but it worked.” It’s not implausible that at the College his bluff might have been to impersonate the public-school hearties among whom he’d spent two years horribly misplaced. If he did perform such bluff, it was seemingly good enough to fool his fellow student — a young man who was pursuing a calling far closer to his heart, but who was portering his own load of anxieties about social class and his lack of the “physical self-confidence” that Reith was cultivating.
It becomes hard not to see Baird and Reith as one more of those odd split Scottish doubles growing from a single root. Both, of course, sons of the manse (though that of the Kirk in Baird’s case and of the United Free Church in Reith’s); both suffering in the “soul-destroying, monotonous drudgery” (Baird) or “the ghastly hours and the squalid circumstances” (Reith) of an engineering apprenticeship; both rebelling, in their own ways, against what Reith described as “mediocrity” and Baird, more vividly, as “slavery”. Present them as a parallel, and the antisyzygies of the era accumulate. Baird the materialist, drunk on Wellsian scientific optimism; Reith the Calvinist preacher manqué. Reith seems to have been positively overjoyed when war came and he could retrieve his status in the officer class; Baird was at worst philosophical when he inevitably failed his medical. Baird, for all his get-rich-quick schemes and touchiness about priority, is hard for the reader to dislike; Reith, for all the public-service ethos that still bears his name, comes over as essentially unloveable.
And both, inevitably, failed to change the world as they’d have liked. The BBC that Reith superintended has long made its peace with the light entertainment he despised, and become identified firmly with that vulgar and corrupting innovation, television. But not, of course, the TV system that Baird developed — a system which, whatever its claims to priority, was to be a commercial and technical dead end. If anybody out there is looking for some symbols to hang a state-of-Scotland drama on, for heaven’s sake take a hint and write the thing so I don’t have to.
Lest all that seem a rather sombre note on which to end, here’s a much more entertaining one, equally in need of a decent dramatisation. The following, culled from Sermons, Soap and Television, is a list of John Logie Baird’s more prominent innovations. The reader is warned that no attempt has been made to verify Baird’s own description of them.
- The Harris / Baird aeroplane [SST, p. 18]. First flight principally vertical (downwards). Status: unsuccessful.
- The Baird local telephone exchange [SST, pp 20-21]. Dismantled following unfortunate accident to passing cab-driver. Status: unsuccessful.
- The Baird domestic electricity system [SST, p. 21]. Electricity provided to household, at the cost to inventor of lead poisoning and permanent acid scar on finger. Status: successful.
- The Barnes / Baird piles cure [SST, p. 29]. Inventor unable to sit down for several days. Status: unsuccessful.
- The Baird process for manufacturing diamonds by electricity [SST, pp. 29-30]. Entire power supply of Clyde Valley electricity company cut off. Manufacture of diamonds unconfirmed. Status: probably unsuccessful.
- The Baird absorbent under-sock [SST, pp. 30-33]. Profits of £1600 in first year of operation. Status: successful.
- The Baird jam factory in Trinidad [SST, pp. 34-36]. Failed to anticipate response of tropical insect population to a large open vat of sweet liquid. Product only saleable to sausage manufacturer. Status: unsuccessful.
- Baird’s Speedy Cleaner [SST, pp. 39-41]. Commercially viable, though given high caustic soda content, should probably have been labelled clearly as unsuitable for children’s skin. Status: generally successful.
- The Baird glass safety razor [SST, p. 42]. Considerably less safe than envisaged. Status: unsuccessful.
- The Baird pneumatic bootsole [SST, p. 42]. Single test run comprised “a few hundred yards” of “drunken and uncontrollable lurches followed by a few delighted urchins”, terminated by burst tyre. Status: unsuccessful.
- The Baird televisor and variants (the phonovisor, noctovision etc.) [SST, pp. 43ff]. Status: debatable. Appraisal and research ongoing.