William ‘Bill’ Baker, Berkeley Lab’s 1st electrical engineer, dies at 103

William Baker/Courtesy

William R. “Bill” Baker, the first electrical engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, died May 4 at age 103.

A Manhattan Project scientist and enjoyer of root beer floats, Baker kept a sailboat at the Berkeley Marina and believed most problems could be solved through dedication.

Among Baker’s children’s inheritances are boxes of papers and photos that relate his life. A rocket skewers the midnight sky of a science fiction magazine. A sepia resume boasts more than 100 papers and patents. A snow-haired retiree laughs as a monkey scales his shoulders.

“It makes us proud to know a man of such dedication / He gave to L.B.L., To Stanford and to the nation,” wrote Elsie McMillan, wife of Nobel laureate Edwin McMillan, in a poem composed for Baker’s retirement from Berkeley Lab in 1980.

Baker was born in Norfork, Arkansas, in 1914. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1936, where he began work at Berkeley Lab in 1938 and met his wife, Edna, who was a waitress at a local restaurant. The couple later had four children, one of whom is Bay Area-based artist Joyce Shon.

“Dad was a classic engineer – he was a curious, persistent, hands-on problem solving guy. There were definitely times when work took precedence. … But he also knew how to relax and enjoy life,” Shon said in an email, explaining that weekends meant picnics, berry-picking, clam-digging and even working on an atomic fallout shelter in the family yard.

At UC Berkeley, Baker assisted Ernest Lawrence, the scientist for whom Berkeley Lab is named, from 1940-1942. Baker worked on multiple cyclotronsprojects he temporarily left to toil over magnetic isotope separators for the Manhattan Project — often working with dangerous amounts of energy.

Baker did not hesitate to complete dangerous energy experiments that would not meet today’s safety standards, according to Berkeley Lab senior technical associate Jim Galvin, who worked with Bill Baker in the 1970s.

“My ideas are based upon experience,” Baker said of his inventiveness in a 1980 Berkeley Lab newsletter. “Many times, I find that applying an old technique in a new way is all that’s needed.”

At home, Baker used that inventiveness to design gadgets such as sprinkler systems, solar ovens and an apple-shooting cannon. His daughters remember him liking Creedence Clearwater Revival, surfing the internet on his Mac and watching the Western movies his wife called “shoot ‘em ups.”

According to an obituary published by Berkeley Lab, in his retirement Baker pondered gravity and time, subscribed to science journals and followed programs such as the Mars rover.

His youngest daughter, Candace Baker, said in an email that she loved hearing her father muse aloud.

“I could hang while he was talking, but if I had to repeat what he said, I would be lost for words,” Candace Baker said in an email. “He had a theory that if you added up everything in the universe it would equal nothing. He loved that one.”

Contact Alexandra Reinecke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arhine9.