Business and Labor

Another Day of Infamy: Airing of the First TV Commercial

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

Booklet from the people who brought the first TV commercial

Booklet from the people who brought the first TV commercial

Very few, if any, people saw it. But 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 schoolteacher 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 had no relation to John Logie Baird, a colorful Scot and one of the inventors of mechanical television. Hollis Baird’s sales brochures included a disclaimer to that fact.

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, belonged to 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 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. It noted 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

The Fox Trappers

Hollis Baird’s inaugural television commercial interrupted a broadcast of a video portion of a CBS Radio program, The Fox Trappers orchestra.  I. J. Fox Furriers in Boston sponsored the program.

But no rules governed whether experimental stations could air commercials, or sponsored network programming. And it isn’t clear whether the Federal Radio Commission fined the company or ‘advised against’ the commercial. However, the FRC repeatedly denied Hollis Baird’s applications for a broadcasting license as he worked to improve the quality of the image and programming.

At the same time, companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, Raytheon and Bell Labs took over development of experimental television. In 1941, Baird gave up after trying to interest Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox in his station. Hollis Baird then taught electrical engineering and physics at Northeastern University’s Lincoln Institute from 1942 to 1982.

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

 

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