Business and Labor

Another Day of Infamy: Airing of the First TV Commercial

Booklet from the people who brought the first TV commercial

Booklet from the people who brought the first TV commercial

On Dec. 7, 1930, what is believed to be the world’s first TV commercial was aired from a primitive television station on Brookline Avenue in Boston.

Very few, if any, people saw it. The federal government slapped the station owners on the wrist anyway.

The misbegotten TV commercial, which promoted a local furrier, was just one setback during a series of struggles to bring television to Boston. A South Shore Sunday school teacher named Hollis Baird fought for years to run a successful television station.

In the end, lack of money and governmental interference doomed Baird’s dream. Television wouldn’t come to Boston until 1948, when WBZ-TV opened its doors.

First TV Commercial

Hollis Baird was born in Houlton, Maine, and lived in Wollaston, Mass., for many years. He taught Sunday school at St. Chrysostom Episcopal Church in Wollaston and led a Boy Scout Troop.

He was no relation to John Logie Baird, a colorful Scot who was one of the inventors of mechanical television. Hollis Baird’s sales brochures included a disclaimer.

In April 1929, Baird co-founded the Shortwave and Television Laboratory, one of about 15 experimental stations scattered across the country. The company broadcast two shows a day and sold radios and mechanical televisions. Another station in New England, W1XAY, was owned by the Boston Post in Lexington, Mass. It operated for less than two years, from June 1928 to March 1930.

A mechanical television involves a spinning disk that scans an image, which is sent by radio and received by another spinning disk. Hollis Baird produced mechanical televisions from 1925-28 for the Baird Receiver Company. (For a short youtube explainer of mechanical television, click here.)

Radio News reported on mechanical televisions in May 1931, noting that “…under favorable conditions, the features of a known person can be recognized. The movements of the lips, eyes and other features are easily discernable.”

From whence the first TV commercial was broadcast

From whence the first TV commercial was broadcast

That first television commercial was part of a broadcast of a video portion of a CBS Radio program, The Fox Trappers orchestra, sponsored by I. J. Fox Furriers in Boston. There was no agreement on whether experimental stations could air commercials, or sponsored network programming. Whether the Federal Radio Commission fined the company or ‘advised against’ the commercial is unclear. What is clear is that the FRC repeatedly denied Hollis Baird’s applications for a broadcasting license as he worked to improve the quality of the image and programming.

Experimental television was being taken over by companies such as Westinghouse, General Electric, Raytheon and Bell Labs.

In 1941, Baird gave up after trying to interest Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox in his station. From 1942 to 1982, Hollis Baird taught electrical engineering and physics at Northeastern University’s Lincoln Institute.

Hollis Baird died in Quincy, Mass., on March 16, 1990, at the age of 84.

 

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  1. Pingback: The Night James Brown Saved Boston - New England Historical Society

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