The Men Who Enabled Us to View the World in Colour

Featured, Science, Technology 2016-11-01

Image Credit (The Times)

Bringing colour to the living room
50 years ago this year, the British Broadcasting Company published its intentions to begin broadcasting in colour. One year later the British people saw the green lawns of Wimbledon in the first colour broadcast. On that day, Britain became the first country in Europe to offer regular colour television starting at just 4 hours a week.


Image Credit (The LIFE Picture
Collection, Getty Images)

John Logie Baird was the man behind the colour transmission system used by the BBC, but was also an important pioneer in developing the first television set, in collaboration with other inventors. He first created and demonstrated colour transmission in 1928, nearly 30 years before it would make its way into British homes.

He died in 1946 before he could see his invention become a widespread phenomenon only a few years later. Without doubt, John Logie Baird can be credited for not only bringing television into the homes of millions but also a few years later, bringing these images in full colour.

Bringing colour to the lab

Roger Tsien was another pioneer who sought to bring colour to images, but rather than viewing sport and the news in colour, he brought colour to the images of science.


Image Credit: C.Mills via
National Geographic

Roger Tsien died in September of this year, but certainly lived to see his discovery change how we look at biology forever. In 1994, he discovered an interesting protein in the North American crystal jelly, 14 years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The protein, GFP, has become an irreplaceable asset to researchers across all disciplines. GFP (green fluorescent protein) was identified in Aequorea victoria, the crystal jelly, as the protein responsible for the ethereal glow at the edges of the jellyfish.


Image Credit: A Franz

After being isolated by Tsien, he found that GFP was able to fluoresce without any other factors than oxygen. This breakthrough led to Tsien proving that GFP could be tagged to proteins in cells, bacteria and living organisms to visualise individual proteins.

After discovering GFP, Tsien and his team began to improve GFP by creating mutants that increased the fluorescence beyond what was found in nature. They also developed a whole palette of colours so that multiple proteins can be tagged at the same time and all seen.

There are now dozens of colours making up a whole toolbox of GFP-like proteins, for scientists to view the subjects of their research in all the colours of the rainbow. Although only a single protein, GFP has enabled scientists to see almost anything in biology, from a single molecule of calcium in a heart cell to an entire organism.

Without a doubt, I am most thankful to Roger Tsien’s discovery for all of the beautiful images it has allowed scientists to capture in the name of research. The British Society for Cell Biology runs a competition every year to find some of the most stunning images and is certainly worth a browse. This is the 2016 winner identifying the substructures within the head of a fruit fly.

Tweet me your thoughts and favourite images to @GabyAtNotch.