William O. Baker

Born: July 15, 1915 | Chestertown, MD, US
Died: October 31, 2005 | Chatham, NJ, US

William O. Baker was raised on Maryland's eastern shore, where he developed an interest in organic and inorganic chemistry from his parents. In college, Baker pursued the field of physical chemistry for his graduate degree at Princeton University focusing on the dielectric properties of medium length chains. After graduating, 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. A majority of this interview centers on Baker's time at Bell Labs, the development of synthetic rubber, and Baker's many other accomplishments. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0013
No. of pages: 102
Minutes: 329

Interview Sessions

Marcy Goldstein and Jeffrey L. Sturchio
23 May and 18 June 1985
AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey

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 PhD 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 chairman of the board. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1935 Washington College BS Chemistry
1938 Princeton University PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

AT&T Bell Laboratories

1939 to 1948
Member, Technical Staff
1948 to 1951
Head, Polymer Research and Development
1951 to 1954
Assistant Director, Chemical and Metallurgical Research
1954 to 1955
Executive Director, Physical Sciences Research
1955 to 1973
Vice President, Research
1973 to 1979
1979 to 1980
Chairman of the Board


Year(s) Award
1937 to 1938

Harvard University Fellow

1938 to 1939

Procter Fellow


National Academy of Sciences


Honor Scroll, American Institute of Chemists


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry


Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society


Edgar Marburg Award


Industrial Research Institute Medal


Frederik Philips Award, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers


Proctor Prize, Sigma Xi

1973 to 1975

Institute of Medicine Council


Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists


James Madison Medal, Princeton University


National Acedmy of Engineers


Mellon Institute Award


Charles Lathrop Parsons Award, American Chemical Society


Fahrney Medal, Franklin Institute


J. Willard Gibbs Medal


von Hippel Award, Materials Research Society


Madison Marshall Award


Sarnoff Award, Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association


Vannevar Bush Award, National Science Foundation


President's National Security Medal


Baker Award, Security Affairs Support Association


National Medal of Technology


Bueche Award, National Academy of Engineering


National Materials Advancement Award, Federation of Materials Societies


Thomas Alva Edison Medal for Science, State of New Jersey


National Medal of Science

Table of Contents

Family background and early exposure to chemistry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 US 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

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 US 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

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.


About the Interviewer

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 AB in history from Princeton University and a PhD in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Marcy Goldstein

Marcy Goldstein was formerly with the AT&T Archives.