MENTION the name of Helensburgh-born John Logie Baird, and the words inventor of television immediately come to mind. But this was not his first successful invention.
That was not at all technical, yet in the year it was on sale, he made a profit of £1,600 — which equates to £34,000 today.
The invention was the Baird Undersock, and it was so successful that it enabled him to leave his humdrum job with the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company.
It followed three unsuccessful projects, all based on his personal needs — a glass razor which would never wear out, a cure for piles, and pneumatic shoes to make walking easier for someone with flat feet.
But his feet were to come up trumps. They were always cold, because of poor circulation, and he changed his socks several times a day.
So he wanted to create a product which would be kind to feet — and as he did so in 1917 during the First World War, when so many soldiers were serving in the trenches and France and also had feet problems, it had great commercial potential.
His daughter, Mrs Diana Richardson, who lives in Uddingston, said in a talk at Strathclyde University: “Soon he was earning in a week what would have taken a year at the Clyde Valley Power Station.”
In his memoirs, Television and Me, the inventor wrote: “I suffered from cold feet and was certain I had found a cure, which was to take off my socks and wrap a sheet of newspaper round my bare feet, and then put the sock on again over the paper.
“Cold feet are invariably caused by damp. The need for water-tight boots is realised, but the need for dry socks is often overlooked.
“Having found the cure, the problem was to market it. Paper undersocks were not feasible, so I approached a sock maker and, after many wanderings, discovered two things.
“Firstly, the trade does not recognise such things as socks. Socks are known as ‘Gents half-hose’. Secondly, the home of ‘Gents half-hose’ is Hinckley in Yorkshire.
“From Hinckley I got six dozen specially-made, unbleached half-hose. Then I sprinkled these with borax — an anti-fungal compound — and put them in large envelopes printed with ‘The Baird Undersock’ and containing a pamphlet describing their advantages and containing testimonials.”
He took an office at 196 St Vincent Street in Glasgow and advertised in the People’s Friend at nine pence per pair, post free. The ad cost 30 shillings, and he had only one reply, so it was an expensive mistake.
Next he set out for the first time as a commercial traveller, visiting chemists and drapers, and the orders started to flow in.
He advertised in the Glasgow Herald for a travelling salesman, had dozens of replies, and soon the Undersocks were being sold in Scotland and England — particularly in Glasgow.
To boost sales, Baird (pictured left while working for Clyde Valley) sent women round the city with sandwich boards, and this also attracted newspaper editorial coverage as a new occupation for ladies. He resigned his job with Clyde Valley as the undersocks started to bring in considerable profits.
“The undersocks were doing pretty well in the chemists, but most of the money was made in drapery stores,” he wrote.
In his marketing he skilfully mixed the promise of healthier feet with testimonials from soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force in France.
In an advertisement, he declared: “Most foot troubles arise from the necessity which civilisation imposes upon us of keeping our feet in more or less air-tight boots or shoes and thus preventing the perspiration (which is simply poisonous matter the skin rids itself of through the pores) from evaporating.
“This perspiration remains in the sock and the foot is bathed throughout the day in the very poisons from which it has been trying to free itself.
“The Baird Undersock is a specially medicated soft absorbent sheath worn next the skin under the ordinary sock. It instantly absorbs and neutralises all perspiration, keeping the feet clean, healthy, and comfortable.
“It is perfectly pure and antiseptic and, worn under the ordinary sock, keeps the feat beautifully warm in winter. In summer the socks may be worn alone, and worn thus keep the feet wonderfully cool and fresh in the hottest weather.
“The socks should be allowed to dry every night. When they become soiled, they may be washed in the usual way.”
This was immediately followed by three testimonials . . .
Corporal H.G.Roberts — I find the Baird Undersocks keep my feet in splendid condition out here in France. Foot trouble is one of our worst enemies, but, thanks to the Baird Undersock, mine are in the ‘pink’, and I think they should be supplied to all soldiers.
Lt D.S. — Please forward one dozen pairs of Baird Undersocks. I have given the sample pair a good trial and find them most effective.
2nd Lt G.H. — Please send me six pairs Baird Undersocks. They are the very things required out here. Woollen socks get sticky and ‘clammy’, and we can’t get them washed. The Undersocks keep the feet and the ordinary socks fresh for weeks.
In the spring of 1919, when his poor health returned and meant six weeks in bed, and with the war over, Baird decided to close down the company and try to make his fortune in the West Indies, setting sail in November of that year.
Mrs Richardson said: “By 1921 most of the money from the Baird Undersock had been spent and his health, always precarious, had been further undermined by malaria and dysentery.”
Television now became his priority, and the rest is history.