New Search

William O. Baker

William Baker

CHF Collections

  • Born: July 15, 1915, Chestertown, Maryland
  • Died: October 31, 2005, Chatham, New Jersey

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0013
Interview Dates: May 23, 1985 and June 18, 1985
Location: AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey
Interviewers: Marcy Goldstein and Jeffrey L. Sturchio
No. of pages: 115
Minutes: 329

  Abstract of Interview

This interview with William O. Baker begins with a discussion of Baker's childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where his parents were involved in raising fowl and developing therapy for turkey pathology; this, along with his father's work in minerals and mining, exposed Baker to both organic and inorganic chemistry. Upon completing high school, Baker attended Washington College, where he received a broad education in liberal arts while studying chemistry with K. S. Buxton and became oriented towards the Bell System and Laboratories through their educational and public affairs programs. He was attracted to Princeton University because of its size, strength in physical and organic chemistry, and links to European chemists, and in 1935 began graduate studies there amidst the College of Chemistry's creation of a new scientific frontier involving physical chemistry and Professors H. Taylor, H. Eyring, R. H. Fowler, and C. P. Smyth. Baker pursued study in physical chemistry, thermodynamics, chemical reactions, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics and also attended weekly seminars sponsored by Taylor, featuring major international figures in physical chemistry and physics. Following his interest in physical chemistry, Baker conducted Ph.D. research under Smyth, following a program on the dielectric properties of medium length chains and graduating in 1938. In 1939, following the advice of Smyth and others at MIT and his own interest in combining industrial and basic science and technology, he accepted a Bell Labs position as member of technical staff and began work with C. S. Fuller and J. H. Heiss on structures and properties of high polymeric substances. The interview discusses Baker's early career at the Labs, the atmosphere there, equipment availability, information exchange, and the use of technical memoranda to introduce technical findings to colleagues. Also discussed are relationships between Summit Labs and New York headquarters staff and within research groups; colleagues, including S. 0. Morgan; and the use of literature research to monitor polymer chemistry developments at DuPont and in industry internationally.

The second interview begins with an overview of Bell Labs' role in the birth of the solid state era, and the use of Labs' resources for new research programs supporting telecommunications and information handling. Baker undertook a program of research first using x-ray diffraction techniques to study crystallinity of polymers, then synthesizing a range of polyesters and polyamides and investigating the relationship between chemical structure and physical properties. The interview describes application of these research findings to electronics and communications industries and the emergence of polyethylene and polyethylene-like materials throughout all industry; discussed in relation to this are the contributions of W. Carothers, W. J. Shackelton, P. Debye, W. A. Yager, K. K. Darrow, L. A. Wood, and others. In 1942, Bell Labs became the center of the U. S. Rubber Reserve, formed to conserve existing rubber and create synthetic rubber for use during World War II. Baker contributed to the Reserve's scientific planning and work by applying earlier research on crystalline cellulose esters, polyesters and polyamides. Bell Labs' R. R. Williams and Fuller recruited major industrial and university centers and researchers for the project, including I. M. Kolthoff, Debye, and others from Cornell, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and U. S. Rubber. The interview describes work involving the discovery and use of microgel, a macromolecule crucial to the synthetic rubber program and later applied to electrical insulators and structural materials in communications, electronics, and throughout the rubber industry. Also described are meetings of the Rubber Research Discussion Group involving academic and industrial scientists who later became leaders of postwar polymer science. A central section of the interview details postwar research involving polymers in microwave structures and as structural elements throughout U. S. industry, and Baker's involvement with transistors and solid state physics. Throughout the interview, scientific themes are related to changes in the organizational structure of Bell Labs, and to patterns of communication within relevant scientific communities. The final section of the interview focuses on Baker's administrative career, particularly his roles and philosophies as assistant director of the Chemical Laboratories from 1951 to 1954—while R. M. Burns was director—and as vice president of research from 1955 to 1973, with overall responsibility for all research programs. Baker also served as Bell Labs' president and chaiiman of the board.


1935 B.S., Chemistry, Washington College
1938 Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Princeton University

  Professional Experience

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1939 - 1948 Member, Technical Staff

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1948 - 1951 Head, Polymer Research and Development

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1951 - 1954 Assistant Director, Chemical and Metallurgical Research

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1954 - 1955 Executive Director, Physical Sciences Research

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1955 - 1973 Vice President, Research

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1973 - 1979 President

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1979 - 1980 Chairman of the Board


1937 - 1938 Harvard University Fellow
1938 - 1939 Procter Fellow
1961 National Academy of Sciences
1962 Honor Scroll, American Institute of Chemists
1963 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry
1966 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1967 Edgar Marburg Award
1970 Industrial Research Institute Medal
1972 Frederik Philips Award, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
1973 Proctor Prize, Sigma Xi
1973 - 1975 Institute of Medicine Council
1975 Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists
1975 James Madison Medal, Princeton University
1975 National Acedmy of Engineers
1975 Mellon Institute Award
1976 Charles Lathrop Parsons Award, American Chemical Society
1977 Fahrney Medal, Franklin Institute
1978 J. Willard Gibbs Medal
1978 von Hippel Award, Materials Research Society
1980 Madison Marshall Award
1981 Sarnoff Award, Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association
1981 Vannevar Bush Award, National Science Foundation
1982 President's National Security Medal
1984 Baker Award, Security Affairs Support Association
1985 National Medal of Technology
1986 Bueche Award, National Academy of Engineering
1987 National Materials Advancement Award, Federation of Materials Societies
1987 Thomas Alva Edison Medal for Science, State of New Jersey
1988 National Medal of Science

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family background and early exposure to chemistry 1

Parents' background raising fowl on Maryland Eastern Shore. Mother's publications and collaborations with Havard pathologist E. E. Tysser and Merck Laboratories, developing therapy to prevent turkey pathology. Involvement in fowl culture and early exposure to systematic chemistry. High school influences.

Undergraduate Education at Washington College 3

Liberal arts education. Chemistry major with K. S. Buxton. Influence and importance of Bell Labs and Bell System. Considerations in choosing Princeton University for grauate studies.

Graduate Education at Princeton University 6

General atmosphere at Princeton upon arrival in 1935. Interactions with H. S. Taylor and H. Eyring. Physical chemists' control of program; interactions between various science departments and professors. Coursework in physical chemistry, thermodynamics, chemical reactions, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. Interests in physical chemistry and chemistry of solids. Analytic techniques and work of N. H. Furman and E. Caley. Organic work. Combination of physics and chemistry coursework. Weekly seminars sponsored by Taylor, including N. Bohr's seminar on nuclear fission. Exchange between Princeton and European universities.

Early Research 17

Derivation of work with C. P. Smyth in physical chemistry. Purification of organic materials and birth of solid state chemistry. Discussion of research in physical and polymer chemistry at Princeton and Bell Labs. Research on dielectric properties of medium length chains, and relation to later Bell Labs' work on structural and dielectric materials. Hubert Alyea's work. Classmates graduating 1936 to 1941.

Early Bell Labs Career 27

Factors leading to accepting position at Bell rather than National Research Fellowship. Early work at Summit Labs with C. S. Fuller and J. H. Heiss on materials. Research on structures and properties of high polymeric substances. Atmosphere at Summit vs. Frick Labs. Equipment availability, idea exchange, and technical memoranda. Relations of Summit to New York headquarters staff. Relations within research groups. Colleagues, including S. Morgan. Literature reviews and library research to follow industry trends. Cross licensing products.

Research at Bell Labs 36

Labs' role in birth of solid state era. Use of combined chemistry, physics, and fundamental engineering resources in new research supporting telecommunications and information handling. Labs' support for continuing education. Research program using x-ray diffraction techniques to study crystallinity of polymers, synthesizing polyesters and polyamides and investigating their chemical structures and physical properties. Importance of polyethylene as replacement for lead. Relationships between Bell Labs, General Electric, and DuPont discoveries, and importance of W. Carothers' work. Importance of cellulose research within industry. Contributions of Shackelton, Yager, and Darrow, and Debye's rare consulting relationship with Bell Labs. Move to Murray Hill. Patent on surface hardening of linear polyamide bodies and subsequent wide applications. Scientific reactions to idea of polyamides and polyesters as unique structures of matter.

Rubber Research 46

Origins of involvement in national synthetic rubber project. Discovery of method of vulcanizing rubber during extrusion. Labs' staff involvement in rubber chemistry section of ACS. Rubber Reserve and importance of synthetic rubber during WWII. Nationalization of U.S. rubber industry. DeBye and light scattering for macromolecular solutions. Interferometer/refractometer measurement method. Effects of rubber project on Labs' internal organization. Traditional rubber manufacturers' reactions to project. Work of Frank Mayo and U.S. Rubber. Rubber Research Discussion Group, group dynamics, academic/industrial scientists' relationships, and collaborations within the macromolecular scientific community. April 1945 discussion of molecular weight distributions in polymer structures.

Additional Research at Bell Labs 57

Genesis of microgel work and role of colloid chemistry. Application of synthetic rubber knowledge to creation of new structures for telecommunications. Microwave networks and the need for polymers. Era of carrier frequencies and coaxial structures, and creation of polyethylene sheathing and containers in packaging industry. Substitution of polymers for metals and textiles as structural elements throughout U. S. industry. Research themes of organic corrosion in polymers, internal stress and improved molecular structures, silicones and fluropolymers. Emphasis on scientific basis of polymers and company reorganization. Research connections with transistor work and solid state physics. Chemical side of solid-state development. Comparison of prewar and postwar research environments. Heat shields work, National Research Council, and involvement in developing ICBMs, missiles, rockets. General effects at Labs of synthetic rubber project and other polymer-related war research. Polymer research group. Journals' influence on research agenda. Informal mechanisms for exchanging polymer information.

Administrative Career 69

Duties and research agenda as assistant director of chemical laboratories. Interactions with R. M. Burns. Labs' management philosophies. Position as vice president for research: style, tone, vision of unified materials science with allied fields and chemistry at core.

Notes 75

Index 80

  About the Interviewers

Marcy Goldstein

Marcy Goldstein was formerly with the AT&T Archives.

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an A.B. in history from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Annual Report

Annual Report
Take a look back at a year of preservation, research, and outreach in CHF’s annual report to supporters.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.