June 21, 2010
The writing of the original version of this essay was supported by a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation to the University of Southern California. Prof. A. Michael Noll of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism was the principal investigator and condensed the original essay by Mr. Lepkowski.
Copyright © 2010 University of Southern California
The influence and accomplishments of William Oliver Baker to such areas as chemistry, research management, government, education, and national defense are legendaryyet he was relatively unknown to the public. How and why was Baker so influentialyet virtually unknown outside the communities he served? This essay is a condensed version of a lengthier piece by Wil Lepkowski, a science journalist who interviewed Dr. Baker over the years, and interprets Baker’s influence as gleaned from interviews of people who knew and worked with him and also from some of his more influential reports and writings. The essay reviews important biographical aspects of Baker’s life and attempts to explain and interpret his significant influence on Bell Labs and in Washington.
Biographers of scientific figures have overlooked Baker as one of the loftiest notables of the country’s post-war period. One can only speculate why he was overlooked. He escaped notice because he never sought attention the way a Carl Sagan or a James Watson could do through their writings and particular public charisma. Baker had to be experienced at close range. He was known most of the time only in parts. Very few had much opportunity to witness all of the man. He operated at the highest and most clandestine levels. His heat shield and synthetic rubber accomplishments as a research chemist at Bell Labs, both spectacular and important scientific work, had to be kept under wraps for security reasons when the breakthroughs occurred. Ego was not part of his makeup.
Because he was at the right places at the right time at a dangerous period in history (the Cold War era), there likely will never again be a figure of such influence like him on public issues of scientific content. The scope of his contributions stretched wide; his capacity to perform on so many levels of responsibility exceeded the exceptional.
Baker made impact right from the start of his career. He was on the ground floor in the development of the solid-state materials that revolutionized everything in electronics today. During World War II his profound knowledge of polymers made possible the mass production of synthetic rubber. During the Cold War, as an adviser to the intelligence community, he brought the research being done at Bell Labs to the work of intercepting and decrypting Soviet communications. Along with that, he lent his expertise to the invention and deployment of reconnaissance spy satellites and the organization that was to run the program.
William Oliver Baker was born in 1915 in Quaker Neck, Maryland and was raised there on a farm run by his mother, Helen. Her farm reportedly led the country in techniques used for successfully raising breeder turkeys, and she published a very popular book in the field. Many of her techniques were based on the science of disease treatment and protection, which required a significant knowledge of chemistry. The youthful Baker helped his mother at her work and tasks, thereby acquiring an early interest in chemistry.
Baker knew that the Bell Telephone Laboratories had a strong team of polymer researchers, and it was there that he went to work in 1939, after having chosen Princeton University with its strong physical science faculty as the place to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He found special fascination with the chemistry and physics of the solid state, which turned out to be the field that made the information revolution possible. Baker was at the ground floor of solid-state science, which later led to his leadership in founding a series of materials research centers at universities during the 1960s.
Baker’s earliest display of chemical creativity at Bell Labs was in making the mass production of synthetic rubber possible during World War II. Because the Japanese controlled the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia, the US had no alternate supply of such an indispensable transport material. The government thus called for a crash program to produce a substitute. As part of that project, Baker, 30 at the time, conceived of a crucial gel-like substance that when added to the existing mixture produced a rubber with properties equal to the real thing. The war could not have been won without that sort of contribution, which, one might add, was one segment among a host of wartime research that led to victory.
One of Baker’s most important Cold War research projects was to develop a special “ablative” polymer fiber as a material for protecting missiles and space capsules from burning up during their plunge back into the atmosphere. When asked what he considered his most significant accomplishment, after some thought, he mentioned his research into graphite carbon.
Baker was a productive and innovative research chemist during his younger years and might have gone on to greater accomplishments had he remained at the laboratory bench. But he had abilities of even higher value to the Labs having to do with strategy and management. In a short time he was promoted to vice-president of the research division giving him supervision over the entire research portfolio at Bell Labs.
Baker oversaw the research taking place at the Labs always with an eye toward future innovations that would enhance the communications task of AT&T and the Bell System. He gave his scientists unequaled freedom to explore new avenues to their research projects. But he also would cut off projects when it became apparent that they were leading in directions not relevant to the constant goal of advancing communications. He kept an active schedule as a public speaker, most often to stress the importance of science as the source of technological innovation as well as a civilizing force in society. His mind and senses in single scans could absorb the multiple dimensions of whatever phenomenon he put his attention to.
Baker’s ability to manage researchers while advancing their careers was low-key but of high impact. Most of all, however, he perceived research management as regulating a system of connections between ideas, people, and the ultimate laboratory goal of application. He said repeatedly that researchers need the feeling that they are special people.
Baker was especially comfortable on that resonant bridge between theory and practice. He understood theory and its implications with rare clarity. He prized basic knowledgefundamental mechanismsas the foundation of laboratory work. But he was able to turn a project off if it was seen to move in directions away from ultimate utility. Part of Baker’s magic was his absorption of the finest details of almost all areas of research and his ability to explain their present or future relevance.
But Baker’s influence extended far beyond Bell Labs. He became the personal confidante to many presidents of the US, from Eisenhower to Bush senior. The US intelligence community worshiped him for his contributions to their mission. He was a personal advisor to Paul Mellon and shaped the formation of the Mellon Foundation and also advised in the creation of Carnegie-Mellon University.
In a significant way, Baker’s story traces, almost step by step, the rise of America’s scientific world dominance. After the Second World War, President Truman and Congress were persuaded that the science and technology that were so essential to winning the war could become the enablers of powerful post-war economies. The needed legislation passed, and the government undertook to construct a system of scientific support for universities that would become, in 1950, the National Science Foundation. Baker was an important participant in the lengthy effort to give shape and function to the agency.
In 1957, President Eisenhower decided to formalize the advice he came to depend on from his bevy of trusted scientists by appointing a Science Advisor in the person of MIT engineer James R. Killian and by establishing an advisory group called the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Baker was among those selected as its initial members. The first major order Eisenhower gave to PSAC was to assess the country’s ability to gather information about Soviet intentions. Eisenhower put Baker in charge of that study, which was completed in 1958. The result was the legendary Baker Report that was hard hitting, to the point, and did the job. The information in it was so sensitive that even today significant portions of it are excised. What made the Baker Report so significant? The major recommendations of the report led to the creation of a NSA research facility near the campus of Princeton University, the separation of research from development within the NSA, the increased use of digital computers by the NSA, and closer ties of the NSA to the CIA.
At the request of Eisenhower, Baker also helped recommend and define what would become the Defense Communications Agency. Another key task Eisenhower assigned Baker, this time with Edwin Land founder of the Polaroid Corporation, was to stimulate the design and use of reconnaissance satellites that were to photographically observe Soviet and Eastern Bloc military activity.
John F. Kennedy, who clearly recognized the multiple returns from knowing and using Baker, succeeded Eisenhower. Baker was present during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so it went on through the Johnson years with the country’s increasing rancor over the Vietnam War and into the Nixon Presidency and the Vietnam War. Baker was involved in similar intelligence work for that conflict with all its controversies. He was a strong believer in the dangers posed by the Communist world.
All through, Baker’s involvement with civilian science matters grew. He essentially led the way in initiating a study of American science education. The report produced was entitled “A Nation at Risk” and received wide circulation nationally. A unit was established at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to maintain the momentum, and it continues to exist today. He also was in the lead in establishing an organization called the Health Effects Research Institute, whose purpose was to create a strong scientific basis for studying the effects of environmental toxins on humans. He remained a steward of the nation’s science resources, leading the way in establishing a network of university research centers in what most certainly was his cherished field of study, materials, which he did so much to help revolutionize.
Baker never lost contact with his national security community, though his engagement gradually lessened with time. Resigning in 1990, he had served the longest on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). He passed away on October 31, 2005, with mainly family, local friends, and a smattering of professional colleagues in attendance at his burial a few days later.
Baker stood out from other policy luminaries in the scientific world during his time. The reasons for that were his pervasive presence and multiple platforms, plus his influence along a range of scientific fields and issues. The source of his pervasiveness was manifold. It was his extraordinary knowledge of basic science; he understood both the fundamentals of a scientific problem as well its larger connection to the political and social framework. It was his deep and roving intelligence. It was his inherent genius. In the case of government service, though, it was his closeness to Presidents owing to his essential role in revolutionizing the espionage and intelligence technology during the worst days of the Cold War along with a compelling sagacity on the personal level and the ability to explain to them the most complex of technical concepts.
Baker’s influence stemmed from his personal impact on people at all levels, producing a multiplier effect on decision-making. His personal network was vast, but he worked quietly, and mostly behind the scenes. His goal was to advance insight and facilitate decision making through an extensive network of individuals of influence. He cultivated them, as though he was constructing a special network of individuals who shared common visions.
Baker expressed, with simple sincerity, an interest in other people, learning much about them though rarely divulging much about himself. That trait, coupled with his imposing memory, made him an extraordinary information gatherer. He routinely took written notes of telephone and other conversations, which he used to tweak his already stupendous memory as needed.
Baker spoke with force and eloquence and had such a deep knowledge of science, technology, and the humanities that he often seemed to integrate them all in the same breath. His knowledge and voluminous memory informed and entertained great numbers of audiences. His skill at connecting basic science to its practical possibilities and his skills at bringing together people of talent, influence, and potential added extra value to any time spent in conversation with him. These qualities were coupled with humility and honesty, giving him a trustworthiness those at high levels valued.
Baker has been called “a catalyst for change,” in decisions and in people. His interpersonal diplomacy was matched by a great love of country.