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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


This is Stooky Bill, television’s first celebrity. He premiered in 1925 from a department store in London. It was a publicity stunt. John Baird, the inventor, transmitted him by radio wave across the building. Later broadcasts would be electronic, but Baird’s was mechanical. He used a selenium cell, an old tea chest, an empty biscuit box, a perforated cardboard disc, and a neon-gas lamp to shine light through the spinning holes—two sets of each, the first to scan, the second to reassemble the strips of light into a replica. He started with thirty vertical strips, and eventually reached 240, which electronic TVs more than doubled. When they divided the strips into colored rectangles in the 60s, they called them pixels, short for picture elements, the smallest units of an image.

John Baird’s previous entrepreneurial projects included: artificial diamonds (he lost his engineering job at the electric company after diverting too much power), Australian honey, Baird’s Speedy Cleaner (Belgian soap), boot polish, Borax-filled socks (Baird’s Undersock), fertilizer, a flying machine, glass razors (never rust or tarnish), guava jelly (procured personally in Jamaica and eventually taken off his hands by a local sausage maker), pneumatic boots (the lurching experiment ended when one of the interior balloons burst), and selenium cells (permanently scarred his left hand).

Stooky was made of plaster, the kind used for broken bones. He was a ventriloquists’s dummy, because it was too dangerous for a person. Baird posed him in the glare, not minding when its straw hair singed, when its cheeks splintered, if one of the light-choppers spun loose and unhinged the jaw. He spoke to his hand clenched inside of the dummy’s head, and the dummy clacked something back. There’s no recording, no transcript.

When I projected this image from my laptop to our TV screen, my wife asked if I’d drawn our daughter. Apparently that’s the radio wave the spinning discs of my brain keep receiving. I made it in MS Paint. I make everything in MS Paint. It’s the equivalent of Baird’s contraption to Photoshop, but I like the limitations. The singed bits.



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