Walter S. Baird

Walter Baird

Walter S. Baird was born in Long Green, Maryland, and trained as a physicist at St. John’s College, where he was also an all-American lacrosse player. He taught electrical engineering at Harvard before completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1936. In July 1936 he founded a scientific instrument company, Baird Associates, with John Sterner, a graduate student at MIT, and Harry Kelly, an MIT alumnus. Initially, only Baird was able to devote all his time to the new enterprise, located in a three-story building on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kelly and Sterner kept day jobs to provide capital for the company.

Kelly was forced to quit the enterprise in 1937, a year before Baird Associates sold its first significant product (to the U.S. Bureau of Mines), a three-meter grating spectrograph suitable for the quantitative analysis of metals. Despite this sale, the fledging company merely scraped by for the remainder of the 1930s, and by 1940 the company had sold only eight spectrographs. Orders for scientific instruments picked up significantly with the advent of World War II; government contracts ensured the company’s survival. Baird Associates’ staff grew from two in 1940 to thirteen in 1942 to over sixty in 1943. By 1947, when Baird Associates was incorporated, its spectrographs were a recognized commodity in scientific research. The company was instrumental in creating a market for spectrographic analysis in an industry that had previously relied on analytical methods originated in the nineteenth century.

Baird Associates merged with Atomic Instruments, Inc., in 1956 and was renamed Baird Atomic, Inc., (so it could keep its acronym B.A., which doubled as a shorthand for “better analysis”). In 1978 the name was changed again to Baird Corporation; the term atomic was considered a liability in the late 1970s. The company was bought by IMO Industries in 1987, five years after Baird’s death. It is now part of Thermo Electron Corporation.


 Baird (left) circa 1945.  Courtesy of Davis Baird.


Arnold O. Beckman

CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry was started with a generous grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 1987.


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