Biography and History

William O. Baker (1915-2005) was a prominent research chemist, head of Bell Laboratories, and a frequent advisor to the government on scientific affairs and technology. At Bell Labs, he was considered a great organizer of scientific research and oversaw some of the most significant inventions of the century. As an advisor, he worked to apply science and technology to meet national needs over several presidential administrations, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, especially related to intelligence gathering, national security, and communications systems.

Baker earned his bachelor's degree in science from Washington College in 1935 and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Princeton University in 1938. At Princeton, Baker worked in the emerging field of polymer research with Professor Charles Smyth. In 1939, Baker obtained a position as a research scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which conducted research on communications for AT&T, where he would spend his entire career. At Bell, Baker became an accomplished polymer chemist. His work focused on macromolecules, plastics, and fibers, the chief insulators in communications technology. He also developed applications for the use of plastics to replace expensive materials, such as metal telephone sets and the lead sheathing on cables and electrical lines. During World War II, his research and development of the new polymer microgel, a synthetic rubber, was significant in alleviating the rubber shortage. His later research into the electromagnetic behavior of organic solids led to the development of ablative heat shields for missiles and satellite re-entry. Over the course of his career, he authored nearly 100 scientific and technical papers and received 13 patents for his research.

Baker rose steadily in the Bell Labs administration. He was named head of polymer research and development in 1948, assistant director of chemical and metallurgical research in 1951, and director of physical sciences research in 1954. In 1955, Baker was promoted to the lab's vice president of research, in charge of overseeing all research programs. Baker became president of Bell Labs in 1973 after the retirement of James B. Fisk. He served in this capacity until 1979 and as chairman in 1980, when he retired. Under his leadership, the lab became one of the world's most advanced and largest research laboratories, growing to 16 laboratories in 8 locations with 17,000 employees. During his long career at Bell, Baker became known for his ability to encourage the creativity of his scientists, promote collaboration, and maintain a focus on usable and useful applications of the science. While he was directing the lab, they developed numerous significant technologies and innovations, including the optical laser, the first fiber optic system, satellite communications systems, the UNIX computer operating system, the transistor, and an improved integrated circuit, and three Bell Labs scientists won the Nobel Prize.

Baker advised the federal government on science and technology throughout his career and into his retirement, notably on the technology of intelligence gathering, believing that scientific research could have the greatest impact if the findings were disseminated to the government. For over 40 years, he served in a variety of federal and presidential posts, and on numerous commissions and panels. In all of his advisory work, Baker emphasized the necessity and practical applications of scientific experimentation and advocated for government policies to support and encourage more rapid technological developments. Baker was a scientific adviser to every president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, spanning from the most intense epoch of the Cold War through the collapse of the Soviet Union. His contributions were responsible for numerous advances in intelligence, data processing, and information management. He served as an original member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (1957-1960) and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1957-1977 and 1981-1990) and as consultant to the special assistant to the President for Science and Technology (1963-1973). He also chaired the group that designed the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President John F. Kennedy.

Many of his most significant contributions were in the areas of national security and intelligence gathering. Baker's first involvement with the federal government was to serve as chairman of a ten-member team that investigated the applicability of emerging science and technology for intelligence gathering. The study, named the "Baker Report," was completed in 1958 and marked a major milestone of a new era of gathering intelligence. He was also a member of the Science Advisory Board of the National Security Agency from 1959 to 1976 and continued to serve as a consultant after that period. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Baker designed parts of the command and control system and continued to serve as the chief designer of the system during the administrations of several presidents after, utilizing the most current science and technology such as computers and satellite reconnaissance. The research at Bell Labs also contributed important developments to this field in such diverse areas as intelligence gathering, missile guidance and detection, undersea warfare, and weapons command and control, and Baker always made the findings of the lab available early to the federal government for application.

His involvement with the government extended to numerous other agencies, generally related to communications technology. From 1961 to 1963, he was a member of Orrick Commission that established the White House Office of Telecommunications Management and served as the liaison between government and private telecommunications organizations on international projects. As a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advisory board (1980-1993), he was involved in planning and implementing communications and other associated facilities required for crisis management. Beginning in 1984, he was involved in developing the non-military global communications services of the U.S. government as chairman of the Diplomatic Telecommunications System Policy Board for the Department of State. From 1969 to 1973, Baker was a Regent of the National Library of Medicine and oversaw the development and implementation of the Medicine Information System later used internationally. He also advised Congress and federal agencies including the Department of Defense (1958-1971), the National Bureau of Standards (1969-1978), the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Management (1970-1978), the Library of Congress (1963-1973), and the National Cancer Advisory Board (1974-1980).

Baker also served the New Jersey state government as an advisor. He was a co-founder in 1985 of the New Jersey Commission of Science and Technology and was one of the founding members of the New Jersey Board of Higher Education (1967-1994). Both positions, as well as his service on numerous commissions and panels, contributed to the state's high-technology movement during that period. He was also active in education reform on the state and national level. He co-authored the report "A Nation at Risk" for the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983 that revealed the need to improve education at all levels and served on visiting committees or as a trustee of several institutions, including Rockefeller University and Princeton University. Baker was also active in many scientific academies and professional societies, covering his wide range of interests, and as an adviser to or director of several philanthropic foundations.

William Oliver Baker was born on July 15, 1915 to Harold M. and Helen (Stokes) Baker. He married Frances Burrill on November 15, 1941 and they had a son, Joseph. He received numerous honors for his achievements from the academic, scientific, and business communities, including the rarely given National Security Medal in 1983, the National Medal of Science in 1988 for his leadership in science and engineering and for his service to government and education, and the Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Science in 2000 for his lifetime commitment to science and public service. Baker died on October 31, 2005 at the age of 90.

Source: From the finding aid for MC218

  • William O. Baker Papers. 1912-2008 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC218

    William O. Baker (1915-2005) was a prominent research chemist, head of Bell Laboratories, and a frequent advisor to the government on scientific affairs and technology. His government service spanned from the Truman administration through the Bush administration and focused on intelligence gathering and national security issues. Baker's papers document his government service beginning with President Eisenhower, as well as his career at Bell Labs, and include correspondence, writings, and reports.