William O. Baker (1915-2005): A Memorial Tribute

by A. Michael Noll

October 31, 2005

The one word that seems most appropriate to describe Dr. William O. Baker and his many contributions to humanity is “revered.” His counsel, wisdom, leadership, and guidance were so significant that all the many people who knew him — in science, in government, at Bell Labs, in universities, and on governing boards — had the highest respect for and devotion to him.

Dr. Baker was a true “diplomat of science” — a “science patriot” — because of his significant contributions to the Nation; and a “science humanist” because of his advocacy of the use of science for the benefit of humanity.

He expressed deep concerns about literacy, not only in reading but also in mathematics, science, and technology. His contributions, commitment, and concerns about science and technology were deep and significant, but these concerns for science and technology also included a lasting love of the humanities. He frequently expressed his desire for a tighter connection between science and the humanities.

He had an unfailing faith in research and in the exploration of the unknown to create new knowledge and understanding, coupled with his unique ability to extract meaning from research in science and technology in terms of their impact on society and humanity. His was a unique ability to comprehend the discoveries of researchers and then to visualize the broader implications and applications of these discoveries. This ability clearly resulted from his phenomenal memory and broad intelligence.

Dr. Baker was never self-promoting and was always self-effacing, expanding credit and acknowledgment to colleagues, organizations, and others. Although he had received many honors over his career, every acceptance speech avoided reference to him and instead listed and applauded the accomplishments of such others as his colleagues at Bell Labs, scientists, and past awardees.

He was an advisor to nearly every president since Truman during the second half of the 20th century, in particular, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Dr. Baker had a trusted relationship with President Eisenhower who assigned him such tasks as creating the first White House science advisory mechanism, forming the Defense Communications Agency, and facilitating the use of communications technology for the intelligence community. The contributions of Dr. Baker to national defense, particularly intelligence during the Cold War, were so substantial that the Security Affairs Support Association established a prestigious yearly award in his name.

His devotion to Bell Labs and the Bell System—both the organizations and their people — was strong and lasting. This love and devotion were also shown to science, particularly his promotion of science in service to humanity.

He kept his personal life private, although it is known that he had a strong affection for his beloved wife Frances, who passed away a few years ago, and for his devoted son Joseph, who was his constant companion in the last years of his life. Dr. Baker’s mother had a considerable influence on him as a young boy and man. Although Dr. Baker never wrote a book, his mother wrote a well-respected book on turkey raising and dedicated it to her son, William.

He was a simple man, with no fancy clothes, cars, or other trappings of wealth and power. Extremely attentive to those with whom he worked, he always remembered personal details and had warm words for others on their special occasions, regardless of their organizational titles or levels.

He served on many boards of philanthropic organizations, universities, and government agencies. His total commitment and wise counsel were greatly valued by all the boards on which he served. The wisdom and humanity of his counsel were respected and uniquely valuable to all the organizations and individuals he advised.

Dr. Baker retired from Bell Labs in 1980 as Chairman of the Board, initially having started his career there as a researcher working in chemistry in 1939 and very quickly being promoted to research director and then vice president of research.

He frequently said that very few people at Bell Labs knew what he really did, and his substantial work outside Bell Labs was indeed invisible to most of his colleagues. But our Nation today sees the results of his influence in education, in libraries and information science, in chemistry and materials, in communications, and in national security — to mention a few. After retirement from Bell Labs, he continued to come to his office at Bell Labs at Murray Hill, NJ  and offered his counsel to those wise enough to appreciate it.

He had a unique ability to listen, comprehend and understand, interconnect and interrelate, and innovate and apply in new and broader ways. His mind was always open and receptive to new ideas, to new ways of doing things, and to new peoples. William O. Baker was a true innovator and catalyst, touching all with whom he had contact and forever motivating and changing them. Indeed, this kind of self-effacing contribution of one’s self to higher pursuits seems to have become an endangered species in today’s world.

As a young man, Bill enjoyed sailing as a pastime. He guided research at Bell Labs through what some believe was its most productive years, championing digital switching and optical communication, and steering the Bell System through the razzle-dazzle of digital and electronic technology. The words of Walt Whitman thus seem most appropriate to memorialize the accomplishments of this extraordinary man:

“Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only,

For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,

And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.”

Walt Whitman