James Baker: WW2 and The Observatory Optical Project

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James G. Baker. American Institute of Physics.

In the summer of 1938, James Baker and his wife Elizabeth traveled to Stockholm for the annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union. The trip, partially funded through Baker’s position at the Harvard College Observatory, was a kind of delayed honeymoon for the young couple, both of them only twenty-three years old. They traveled across the Atlantic on a steamer named Europa in the company of Harlow and Martha Shapley, and the following week in Stockholm was as Baker described it, “pure astronomy.”

Still, signs of the rising political tensions in Europe were unavoidable. German warships were docked in the Stockholm harbor, despite Sweden’s eventual policy of neutrality. The Bakers’ visit coincided with the highly publicizing arrival of Hermann Goering, one of the highest ranking men in the Nazi Party. The couple ended their trip with a roundabout tour through Europe, including a three week stay in Germany. They visited the Hamburg Observatory to see the famous Schmidt telescopes, and later enjoyed a visit to the Science Museum in Munich. By coincidence, their travels further coincided with the 1938 Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party, which they inadvertently attended. Baker later admitted to being “a little bit frightened” by the experience and the militaristic nature of the Reich Party Convention. The couple departed on the final day of the infamous Munich Agreement, a meeting between Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini, which was orchestrated to prevent the war and failed to that end within a year. German military trains, filled with thousands of troops in uniform and visible armaments, lined the surrounding tracks as the Bakers left Germany to return home. Another three years passed before the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, but as Baker later described, “the war clouds were forming,” and he began after the trip to consider his place in it.

James Baker began his work with the H.C.O. in 1935 after completing a degree in mathematics at the University of Louisville. As an undergraduate student, he constructed two telescopes, and spent hours studying the stars on his own time. Even before he arrived in Cambridge, his interests in optics were almost synonymous with his astronomical pursuits. Once at Harvard, Baker became especially interested in apochromatic lenses, which could capture an object’s size, shape, and color with a greater degree of accuracy in comparison to earlier technologies. Baker completed his M.A. in astronomy at the H.C.O. in 1936, and received an appointment to Junior Fellow of the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows the following year.

After the outbreak of war in Europe, under the direction of General George W. Goddard, military scientists with the U.S. Army contacted Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, in 1940. They were looking for an expert in optics. Months earlier, Baker had designed and taught a semester course on the theory of optics for the math department at Harvard. On Shapley’s recommendation, he made his first visit to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in January 1941 to discuss the technology of aerial photography and reconnaissance. Baker spent five weeks there working with military engineers. Soon after his stay, the Army Air Corps signed a contract with Harvard University based on Baker’s proposed plans for a distortionless wide-angle reconnaissance camera and a group of new apochromatic instruments.

The Optical Shop in Building D, 1941. From OSRD Report 4740, Plate 1.

On August 3, 1941, Baker set up a preliminary laboratory at the H.C.O. in the basement of Building D, below the storage room for the plate stacks. He recruited two members of the local Amateur Telescope Makers club to join him full-time and become opticians, one a banker and the other an office clerk. Aerial photography, at distances of 30,000 to 40,000 feet, required lenses with extremely high resolution capabilities. Military reconnaissance depended on greater degrees of detail than most cameras could provide, so Baker’s laboratory was first tasked with designing prototype aerial camera lenses for military aircrafts. Once designs were tested, modified, and approved, the lab could then shift its focus to larger-scale production work. The optics lab was all-consuming for its relatively small staff. The average work week for full-time staff members regularly totaled upwards of seventy hours. In Baker’s own words, “The whole thing started up very actively and to say the least, I had to give up any other activities around the observatory.”

Though Baker was still a graduate student, Harlow Shapley became convinced that Baker’s accomplishments in optics had more than earned him his degree. During a departmental dinner in 1942, Shapley called upon Baker to give an impromptu talk. Immediately following Baker’s unplanned remarks, Shapley asked for a vote on recommending Baker for a Ph.D on the grounds of the ‘oral exam’ he’d just given. The vote was unanimous, but there was still the slight problem of a dissertation. The war, and Baker’s part in it, made for an unusual turn of events. As Baker later described it:

So then by the time of ‘42, Shapley had prevailed on Lowell and others that since I was doing serious war work and already entering professional life I very badly needed the degree. They felt that I’d already done enough with various papers and various activities to justify it, and so the arrangements were made. Then towards April 1942, Shapley called and said he was very sorry but he would have to have a thesis. And he had to have it by the following Monday morning. This is all around Thursday. So I quickly abandoned everything else, got my notes together and typewriter and started working. I gathered my different notes on my nebular papers and other things, so it was a bit of a mixed thesis; astrophysics and optics.

Whatever date was given for the conference of the degree, Baker’s work in 1942 was almost exclusively devoted to war-related projects.

Soon enough, he returned again to Wright Field, this time to fly. To test the cameras, Baker and his colleagues took their newly-constructed instruments up in planes flying over Dayton and Cincinnati. Baker himself spent the flight tests traveling in the unpressurized compartment of the aircrafts, which was less than comfortable. Early success in the flight tests of Baker’s aerial lens prototypes resulted in additional funding from the Office of Scientific Research and Development. This new iteration of the optics lab, later called the Observatory Optical Project (OOP), expanded the lab’s objective to include more focused attention to functional aspects of design, including efficiency, stability, temperature control, and altitude-prompted automatic focusing. Increased attention was also given to night photography and ocean surveillance. With the support of the OSRD funding, the laboratory staff eventually increased from three full-time workers to forty-seven employees. Baker relocated the shop to a new site on Soldiers Field in Brighton, MA. He spent $40,000 re-adapting the building to suit their needs in the early months of 1943, and work began at the expanded site in March of that year.

Optical Shop in New England Depository Library, c. 1942. From OSRD Report 4740, Plate 2.

The formal surrender of the Japanese Army on September 2, 1945 marked the end of World War Two. Germany had already surrendered to Allied forces earlier in the spring. At war’s end, work in the optics lab was still ongoing with close to a dozen unfinished projects. Baker spent hours in conversation with military officials and Harvard administrators as to the future of the laboratory. Ultimately, Harvard decided to terminate its war-related projects. In Baker’s own words:

The Army Air Corps offered Harvard the building for a dollar, and contracts to carry on the work, but it was not academic any longer. Harvard’s policy at that time under [President James] Conant had been not to accept any further government support, even to show that Harvard had benefited from the war, because there was a sort of feeling of moralistic feeling of ethics not to benefit from the war. So a building that we’d had put up in the spring of ‘45 was torn down already by the following spring. And it was a building that had been offered for nothing, to Harvard. Under present circumstances they’d have been delighted to accept it, but this is a different time period.

Baker’s lab was instead moved to Boston University where it later became the basis of the ITEK Corporation, a military defense contractor that initially specialized in camera systems and reconnaissance. James Baker remained at Harvard. In 1948, he received the Presidential Medal of Merit for his wartime contributions

Between 1941 and 1945, Baker’s optics lab produced upwards of 200 prototype lenses. Baker and his colleagues tested their instruments in B-24 and B-17 planes at Army Air Force bases in both Ohio and Texas. When the war ended, military officials ordered Harvard to return all materials created under government contract, including notebooks, correspondence, and any remaining instruments. Much of the returned material was destroyed, recycled, or otherwise inadvertently lost in the post-war administrative chaos. As Baker put it, “So they destroyed them. But that’s true, not only of my work, that’s true of anybody that ever did contract work… They don’t have enough room, you see. Too many things are going on, too many new things are being shipped in and too many old things get in the way, so they simply have to do it.”


Baker, Neal. 2005. “James Gilbert Baker (1914 – 2005).” American Astronomical Society. June 29, 2005. https://aas.org/obituaries/james-gilbert-baker-1914-2005.

Cameron, Gary Leonard, “Public skies: telescopes and the popularization of astronomy in the twentieth century” (2010). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 11795. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/11795.

Interview of James Baker by David DeVorkin on 1980 June 9,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

McGrath, Alex. “OOPs!: Trials and travails in the Observatory’s Optics Projects.” Galactic Gazette (blog). December 12, 2018. https://wolba.ch/gazette/oops/.

Plummer, William T, and Stephen D Fantone. “James Gilbert Baker 1914–2005,” 2007. https://www.nae.edu/187802/JAMES-GILBERT-BAKER-19142005.

About Shealynn Hendry

Shea is the Collections Assistant at the John G. Wolbach Library.

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