Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Herbert Baker (1867–1940)

by Harley Wood

This article was published:

Henry Herbert Baker (1867-1940), optician, was born on 6 October 1867 at Yeovil, Somerset, England, son of William Baker, bank clerk, and his wife Mary Ann, née Watson. He became a clerk in his grandfather's firm, W. Watson & Sons. Partly because of incipient phthisis, he came to Melbourne to represent his firm at the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888. Arriving in May, he found prospects so promising that he arranged to open a branch of the business and for his brother Frank to join him. They carried a range of cameras, microscopes, telescopes and surveying instruments, mainly of Watson manufacture. On 16 April 1891 at Carlton he married Clara Ingham with Congregational rites.

Baker had wide interests. He took the English course in optics and sight-testing and about 1900 obtained the diploma of the Spectacle Makers' Company. He lectured widely on optical matters, astronomy and X-rays, discovered in 1895. Early in 1896 coils and vacuum tubes were obtained to supply those interested in making trials; the firm, under Baker, played an important role in making available the benefits of X-rays and in 1921 a factory for manufacturing electro-medical equipment was established.

An 'enthusiastic student of science', Baker was a member of various astronomical, microscopical and photographic societies. He was founder and in 1911-14 first president of the Victorian Optical Association. He studied defects in the refraction of the eye and the firm's rooms were equipped with the most modern instruments for testing eyesight and correcting disorders.

Henry and Frank Baker had acquired the Australian business in 1903, when their uncle T. P. Watson died. The firm was registered as a proprietary company in 1916 and as a public company in 1919 with Henry as managing director; the name W. Watson & Sons Ltd was retained in honour of his grandfather. Sydney henceforth became the headquarters of a business covering the chief cities of Australia and New Zealand; the company built and moved into the substantial Watson House in Bligh Street in 1928. After relinquishing the post of managing director, Henry remained as chairman until 1940. He regarded his staff as a kind of 'family' and was closely concerned with their welfare.

Baker was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1919 and, later, of the local Microscopical Society. An outstanding member of the British Astronomical Association from 1932, he served as honorary librarian, secretary in 1936-39 and president of the New South Wales branch in 1939-40. He was a member of the Congregational Church, Killara, and active in such organizations as the Rotary Club of Sydney, the Killara Community Service Club, and the Millions Club of New South Wales, which supported immigration.

Baker became somewhat deaf and founded Deaf Aids Ltd as a subsidiary of W. Watson & Sons. Although he experimented with hearing aids, he did not use one and his deafness gave some impression of aloofness. He died of coronary occlusion after a surgical operation on 13 August 1940 in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. He was survived by his only son Arnold, who became a director of W. Watson & Sons.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • W. Watson & Sons Ltd, A Brief History (Syd, 1928), and X-rays (Syd, 1938), and Salute to the X-ray Pioneers of Australia (Syd, 1946)
  • Scientific Australian, 20 Sept 1905
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 75 (1940)
  • British Astronomical Association, Journal, 51 (1941)
  • records (Watson Victor, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Baker, Henry Herbert (1867–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 October, 1867
Yeovil, Somerset, England


13 August, 1940 (aged 72)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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