Sock of the week no.9

For today’s sock of the week we are indebted to Liz, a long-time reader of this blog, who kindly pointed me in the direction of one of the lesser-known creations of Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird: the Baird Undersock.

Born in 1888, John Logie Baird grew up a few miles away from where my parents now live in Helensburgh. This tenacious, eccentric and endlessly innovative inventor is best known today for his advances with television, particularly the first transatlantic television transmission, and the development of colour TV. But, in the decades before Baird helped democratise the transmission of moving pictures, his creative energies were focused on his feet.

As a young man at the beginning of the first world war, Baird had tried to enlist, but had been deemed physically unfit for military service, because of his poor health. So he took a job with the Clyde Valley Electric Power Company, supervising the repair of electrical breakdowns. This involved being outdoors in all weathers, and as Baird suffered from continual chest infections, it was not work he particularly enjoyed. Reading about the appalling conditions faced by young soliders in the trenches, and knowing something about cold, damp feet from what his own work involved, Baird considered the problem. Leaky boots were one thing, and sweaty feet were another. He had personally found that a second, lighter pair of socks worn underneath a hard-wearing outer pair helped to keep his feet dry. “Most foot troubles,” he wrote, “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 . . . from evaporating.” Created from lightweight and airy wool, designed specifically to wick moisture away from the feet, an undersock would, he argued, “instantly absorb and neutralise all perspiration, keeping the feet clean, healthy, and comfortable.” Having developed the concept, Baird required a manufacturer. He had to quickly learn the language of the Yorkshire hosiery trade — what he wanted to make was apparently a type of “gents half-hose” — and having acquired few dozen samples from a mill at Hinckley, he treated his socks with an anti-fungal preparation, and packaged them himself, together “with a pamphlet describing their advantages.”

Now Baird just had to sell his undersocks. After an expensive advert in the Peoples Friend had little effect, he made several unusual bids for public attention. He first employed women to carry sandwich boards (a role usually filled by men), whose activities promoting his undersocks around the streets of Glasgow brought him considerable editorial coverage. Then Baird constructed a plywood replica of a tank, emblazoned with undersock advertisements, a spectacular object which certainly drew attention when it was pushed around the city.

Glasgow women carrying Baird Undersock sandwich boards

Orders began to flood in, Baird was able to leave his job with Clyde Valley Electric, and devote his time and energy to his business, travelling around Scotland and England successfully selling undersocks to drapers, outfitters and chemists.

Baird moved on from socks a few years later, but his innovation in layering and wicking effectively secured his own financial future, allowing him the time and energy to focus on his other numerous inventions: glass razor blades, corrective pneumatic shoes, industrial diamonds, jam, soap . . . and, of course, television.

Images courtesy of Strathclyde University.

Sock of the Week courtesy of Liz. Thanks Liz!