Baker, John Fleetwood, Baron Baker 1901-1985, civil engineer, was born 19 March 1901 at Liscard, Cheshire, the younger child and only son of Joseph William Baker, etcher and water-colour painter, whose house was in Liscard, and his wife, Emily Carole Fleetwood. Baker was educated at Rossall School, from which he won an open mathematical scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, where he read mechanical sciences in 1920-3. He was placed in the first class in the tripos (1923).
In 1923 jobs in engineering were difficult to find, and it was only in January 1924 that Baker gained employment, by accident, as an assistant to Professor A. J. Sutton Pippard [qv.] in an investigation into the structural problems of airships. The work went well, and a year later Baker transferred to the Royal Aircraft Works, Cardington, as a technical assistant in the design department; he resigned in 1926 to join Pippard as an assistant lecturer at University College, Cardiff, but he continued to spend time at Cardington. The work was concerned essentially with the determination of elastic stresses in the main transverse space-frames of airships, and Baker's publications from this period show the great complexity of the investigation, and the drudgery (which was later obviated by the use of electronic computers). These few years may be viewed as an apprenticeship served by Baker; a later equivalent would be the concentrated study of a research student in his attainment of a Doctor of PhilosophyThe next eight years, 1928-36, saw Baker make a first start in his life's work, although it was, as it turned out, a false one. The steel industry set up the steel structures research committee in the late 1920s to try to bring some order into the multitude of conflicting regulations governing the design of steel-framed buildings. The committee had many eminent members from industry, government, and academe, and Baker was appointed as technical officer to the committee, although he was prevented by a severe illness (probably tuberculosis) from taking up his post until January 1930. Three volumes (1931, 1934, and 1936) record the theoretical and experimental findings of the committee, and many of the papers in them were written by Baker. His contributions were recognized immediately, and he was awarded the Telford gold medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1932, and appointed to the professorship of civil engineering at Bristol in 1933.
However, at the end of this work Baker realized that the elastic method of structural analysis could never serve as the basis of a rational design method for steel structures. The actual elastic state of a structure is extremely sensitive to accidental imperfections, and cannot, in any real sense, be predicted. What can be predicted with great accuracy, however, is the collapse load of a ductile structure, and Baker's work was directed from 1936 onwards to the development of the plastic method of design. Although progress may have seemed slow, a mere dozen years saw the appropriate British standard altered (in 1948) to permit design by plastic collapse methods. A spectacular application of the new ideas had been made in the meantime to the design of the Morrison air-raid shelter (for which Baker received official acknowledgement from the royal commission on awards to inventors); Baker was scientific adviser to the Ministry of Home Security from 1939, and was concerned with many aspects of air-raid precautions, as he described in his Enterprise versus Bureaucracy (1978).
In 1943 Baker moved to Cambridge University as a fellow of Clare College and professor of mechanical sciences and head of the engineering department, where he built up a substantial research team working on problems of structural design. At the same time he completely revised the educational programme of the department, and proposed the construction of new buildings, a doubling of the teaching staff, and a great expansion of research activity in all fields of engineering (including management studies). He achieved all these aims comfortably. He was concerned also with more general administration of the university, and found time to serve on the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, on the University Grants Committee, and on other national bodies. He wrote a massive two-volume account of elastic and plastic methods of design The Steel Skeleton (1954, 1956) and, later, a two-volume text Plastic Design of Frames (1969, 1971). To this Dictionary he contributed the notices of Sir Charles Inglis and Andrew Robertson. He retired from his chair in 1968.
Baker's pioneering work on the plastic theory of structures was recognized academically by the award of eight medals (including the Royal medal of the Royal Society in 1970), by twelve honorary degrees, by election as FRS in 1956 and as a founder F.Eng. in 1976, by honorary fellowship of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and by honorary membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was a fellow and vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and fellow of the Institute of Welding. He was appointed OBE in 1941, knighted in 1961, and made a life peer in 1977.
Baker married in 1928 Fiona Mary MacAlister (died 1979), the daughter of John Walker, cotton broker in Liverpool. There were two daughters. Baker died in Cambridge 9 September 1985.
J. Heyman in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. xxxiii, 1987
Contributor: Jacques Heyman