Sunday 12 June 2016

The Baird Undersock

John Logie Baird
On Tuesday 14th June 2016 it will be the 70th anniversary of the death of Scottish inventor John Logie Baird. Baird is usually remembered for being the first person in the world to demonstrate a working television system

However it is not so well known that one of his previous inventions was a thermal style undersock, which gained him moderate success around the time of the Great War.

Devised in around 1916, the Baird Undersock was an unbleached sock sprinkled with an anti-fungal compound called Borax, that when worn under normal footwear, kept the feet dry and warm. 

These socks gained positive testimonials from servicemen serving in the trenches in France and eventually they not only helped him quit his mundane job at an electrical power company, but also move away from Scotland to a warmer climate.

Baird had always suffered from poor circulation. He felt cold nearly all of the time and often wore heavy coats even in milder weather, in an attempt to try and keep warm. His cold feet caused him major problems and over time he tried different ways to try and keep out the chill. 

He wrote in his memoirs that a favourite method he used was to remove his socks, wrap his bare feet in newspaper to absorb any moisture, and then put the socks back on again, over the paper.

Taking this idea forward, he managed to get a supply of half-hose socks from a company in Yorkshire, sprinkled Borax on them and packaged them up with a leaflet outlining their advantages. 

They were then advertised in The People’s Friend - a British national periodical magazine - for sale at a price of 9 old pennies a pair, inclusive of postage. However from this original advert, he only managed one sale causing a major re-think to his advertising and sales strategy.

Baird then set out as a travelling salesman, placing the socks in pharmacies and drapers in and around his native Glasgow area and soon enough the repeat orders started to come in. 

It wasn’t long before he was in a position to take on a team of salesmen, supplying not only to Scotland, but down into England as well. 

He also employed a team of women wearing sandwich boards, who walked around Glasgow city centre advertising the socks. This was a masterstroke as it not only took the advertising out on to the street, but captured the attention of the local press thereby creating even more business.

In one advertisement he stated that “The socks are perfectly pure and antiseptic, and, when worn under the ordinary sock, keep the feet beautifully warm in winter. In summer the socks may be worn alone, and worn thus keeping the feet wonderfully cool and fresh in the hottest weather.” 

This message was immediately followed by three testimonials from soldiers serving in the British Expeditionary Forces in France.

In the latter stages of the war the sales of the Baird Undersock started to take off and by that time he was earning the same amount in a week as he would have done back at the power station in a year. 

But as hostilities came to an end, the business slowed down and during a period while Baird was suffering another bout of ill-health, it came to a grinding halt.

Because of his aversion to the cold, he decided to relocate to a warmer climate and with the money made from the Undersock, he went to live in Trinidad where it is believed he secretly started to experiment with bright flashing lights!

After suffering bouts of malaria and dysentery, it wasn’t long before he returned home to the UK and within seven short years his Caribbean adventures resulted in what was to ultimately become his most famous invention.