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Baker, David (1861–1942)

by Nancy Cushing

This article was published:

David Baker (1861–1942), steelworks manager, was born on 30 May 1861 at East Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, son of Reuben Rich Baker, mariner, and his wife Mary Cobb, née Atwood. David was educated at the grammar and high schools at Newton, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating as a mining engineer and metallurgist in 1885. He married Katherine Miller and they had two children.

Baker worked as a blast furnace superintendent with the Pennsylvania Steel Co. at Steelton, Pennsylvania, and from 1887 oversaw the establishment of new steelworks at Sparrows Point. He disseminated his ideas about reducing labour costs through articles such as 'The Rock-drill Applied to Opening the Tapping Hole of a Blast-Furnace' in the Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (1892). In 1898 he moved to the Illinois Steel Co. From 1901 to 1904 he was general superintendent at Dominion Steel in Nova Scotia, Canada, then a consulting metallurgical engineer based in Philadelphia, U.S.A. Later he formed a partnership with James B. Ladd to work on projects such as the planning of the new Bethlehem steelworks. Inventions including the Baker and Neumann distributor tap, the Baker top controller and the Ladd and Baker pig breaker established him as an innovator in the industry.

In 1912 Baker was selected by Guillaume Delprat, general manager of Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd, as a 'tiptop' man to advise on establishing steel-making in Australia. Travelling with his daughter, Baker spent several months investigating B.H.P.'s position and concluded that steel could be produced at a profit by carrying iron ore from South Australia to company-owned land near the Newcastle coalfields in New South Wales and by focusing on producing steel rails. In 1913 he was engaged to oversee construction and management of the steelworks. With his wife and son, he settled at Newcastle and began the transformation of the water-soaked site.

Baker was one of a series of American experts employed by B.H.P. both in mining and steel-making. He brought with him the latest knowledge and had connexions in the U.S.A. that ensured a continuing flow of materials, technology and skilled workers, including his son David, as overseers in the works. Baker maintained his network through membership of the British Iron and Steel and the American Iron and Steel institutes, the American Society of Mining Engineers and the Geological Society of the United States.

The coincidence of the opening of the Newcastle steelworks with World War I created unexpected pressures and opportunities, leading to the addition of a second blast furnace in 1918 and a third in 1921. Baker presided over his thousands of workers with a quiet dignity. Energetic and capable of making decisions rapidly, he expected a high level of commitment and rewarded loyalty, but was frustrated when what he thought fair treatment failed to prevent strikes. His anti-union attitudes were consistent with those that then prevailed at B.H.P. and, despite strikes and shut downs, he persisted with policies such as seven-day working weeks for waged employees.

Baker and his wife engaged with the local community: he belonged to the Newcastle Club and organized wartime fund-raising concerts. He was a member of the Society of Friends. As B.H.P. was the principal industry in the city, the couple frequently entertained official visitors, from the Prince of Wales to members of service groups. Overnight guests were accommodated in the large works' manager's house, built in 1920 for the Bakers. Photographs showed him with a moustache and goatee beard. He believed in the power of an orderly environment: one of his last public statements at Newcastle was advice on the beautification of the historic centre of the city.

Ailing by 1920, Baker was ready to return to his homeland. After six months of ill health, and a restorative visit to the U.S.A. in 1921, he oversaw the upgrading of the steelworks during the closure from April 1922 to February 1923 and began to groom Leslie Bradford as his successor. Baker departed permanently in March 1925, but remained active for the next decade as an adviser based at Philadelphia. In 1935-36 his reminiscences were published in the B.H.P. Review. Predeceased by his wife in 1936, Baker died on 12 December 1942 at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and was buried in West Laurel Hill cemetery, Philadelphia. The main road through the Newcastle steelworks site was named after him. Baker's son succeeded him as adviser and retired in 1946. The steelworks closed in 1999.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hughes, The Australian Iron and Steel Industry 1848-1962 (Melb, 1964)
  • A. Trengrove, What’s Good for Australia (Syd, 1975)
  • G. Blainey, The Steel Master (Melb, 1981)
  • D. Sawer, Australians in Company (Melb, 1985)
  • E. M. Johnston-Liik et al, A Measure of Greatness (Melb, 1998)
  • BHP Review: Jubilee Number, June 1935
  • BHP Review, 20, no 2, March 1943, p 7
  • BHP Journal, no 2, 1979, p 30
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 25 Jan 1921, p 5, 24 Aug 1923, p 4, 6 Mar 1925, p 5, 9 Mar 1925, p 4, 18 Dec 1942, p 2
  • Baker file (BHP Billiton archives, Melbourne).

Citation details

Nancy Cushing, 'Baker, David (1861–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 31 March 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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