International Hydrofoil Society Presents...

Hydrofoil Pioneers

The Gordon Baker Story

by Bob Johnston

One of the outstanding contributors to the modern era of hydrofoil development was Gordon Baker. Gordon became involved with hydrofoils in the late 1940s and played an active role, particularly with the US Navy's program, until his untimely death. Gordon was a strong mathematician who, as a member of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, worked primarily on fire control systems. After WW II he joined Professor Den Hartog at the Westinghouse Corporation as a vibration specialist. He did troubleshooting for Westinghouse on rotating machinery all over the world.

Gordon's grandfather founded the Baker Manufacturing Company in Evansville, Wisconsin, a producer of windmills widely known throughout the farming community. Gordon's father while a student at the University of Wisconsin wrote a thesis on the subject of profit sharing as an employee incentive. The heart of this plan was the distribution of stock to employees based on longevity and salary. Upon Gordon's father's graduation he joined the family company and convinced his father to introduce this incentive system in the Baker Manufacturing Co. The problem with the plan was that it was too generous as far as the Baker family was concerned. By the time Gordon's father retired from the company there were employees who owned more stock than members of the Baker family. Gordon's older brother took over as the President of the company but his heart wasn't in it, and the company began to deteriorate. Gordon became concerned about his mother who depended solely on an income from the profits of the Baker Company. To salvage the situation Gordon gave up his position at Westinghouse and became the head of Baker Manufacturing Company in the late 1940s.

Gordon recognized that -- with the spread of rural electrification -- windmills were not a very popular item and so he turned to producing and manufacturing rural water systems along with establishing warehouses for the distribution and sale of these systems. These and other of his efforts brought the company back into a profitable position.

Producing water systems did not have the technical challenge that Gordon had previously experienced. He therefore sought other products that could provide that challenge. While he was with Westinghouse a fellow engineer was a German by the name of Tietjens. Engineers will probably remember studying Tietjens' "Strength of Materials." While Tietjens was with Westinghouse he had experimented with hydrofoils, actually testing a small runabout on the Philadelphia River. This was in the 1930s when Gordon was a junior engineer at Westinghouse. As the German war effort grew, Tietjens returned to his native land to assist. He designed and built the VS-7 to compete with a Schertel's VS-8 for a production contract to build a hydrofoil mine-layer. Baron von Schertel and the shipbuilder, Sachsenberg, were the winners of the competition and Tietjens faded from the hydrofoil scene.

    Based on his experience with Tietjens, Gordon Baker decided that the construction of a low cost, hydrofoil run-about could find a place in the US market. Also the design and testing of a simple-to-operate craft while keeping costs low gave Gordon the technical challenge that had been missing in his life. 

The basic concept that he started evaluating was the use of a constant section V-shaped foil that could be extruded. Undertaking test work with the University of Minnesota, he perfected a foil that met his desired requirements. During this period he studied conventional, canard, and tandem foil arrangements. For the production model he selected the canard arrangement because of its ability to be steered forward.

As he took his runabout to boat shows and other display opportunities, He found tremendous interest but sales were limited and disappointing (see news article reprinted below). Baker Manufacturing continued to produce these craft for a number of years but the sales appeared to be fixed at a low number per year no matter the effort place into expanding sales.

During this period Gordon Baker became aware of the US Navy's interest in hydrofoils. He came forward and reviewed his experiences in designing and testing his production model run-about. He then proposed to continue his testing of constant section V-shaped surface-piercing foils and to build a larger model craft with steerable, in-banking foils. The control system was to be completely mechanical. The Navy considered this to fit in with their ongoing hydrofoil development program and a contract was awarded to design and build the craft HIGH POCKETS.

HIGH POCKETS, when delivered, proved to be an interesting craft. For the first time the Navy had a test vehicle in which passengers could be carried and that could demonstrate some of the desirable characteristics of hydrofoils. The steering and differential changes in the angles of attack of the inboard and outboard foils were controlled by a mechanical computer during turning maneuvers. As a result, this 24-foot craft helped increase interest in the US Navy's program. It also gave the first hydrofoil ride ever taken by a US Navy Chief of Naval Operations when Admiral Carney made a round trip from the Pentagon to the Anacostia Naval Air Station (see the IHS Newsletter, Spring 1990 or click here).

While Baker was working on his runabout, his sailing enthusiasm carried over into the development of a hydrofoil sailboat. His first craft was a cat boat using similar foils to the runabout. He used a conventional arrangement with the aft foil used as the rudder. The sailboat was quite thrilling to sail, being fast enough to pass a number of power boats. The problems were that to come about the boat came in irons and would stall out, also when running before the wind the craft had a tendency to pitch pole. Gordon then made the decision to build a larger craft with features which would overcome these problems. These efforts were using venture capital of the Baker Company as the ultimate aim was to find a marketable product.

Gordon approached the US Navy seeking financial assistance in the sailboat venture. The Navy had no interest in hydrofoil sailboats but was interested in exploring various types of foil systems. One system was the use of ladder foils as used on the old Bell boat and were also being investigated by the Canadian Navy. The problem with ladder foils was to hold the tolerances during the fabrication process. The Navy made an arrangement to support the fabrication of the foil system if Baker agreed to complete the rest of the boat. Baker's initial design was to use two fixed, aluminum sails to achieve a bi-plane effect. His design goal was in the 40 to 50 knot speed range. Another feature of the craft was a mechanical computer which sensed the forces from each stay. The computer then calculated the desired angle of attack of the rear foil to prevent the previously experienced pitch poling on the smaller sailboat. The controlled rear foil was V-shaped foil similar to that used on his runabout. The conventional arrangement included two ladder foils forward that were fixed.As this sailboat project developed, financing by the Baker Company became a problem. After building the first fixed sail the costs ran so high that the decision was made to go to cloth sails in a sloop rig. Otherwise the design changed very little from concept to completion. The previous problems with stalling and pitch poling had been eliminated. However the marketing results were again a disappointment to the Company. Sales never developed to the extent that warranted going into production. Click here to view detail photographs and posted correspondence on the subject of the MONITOR.

Now the lack of stock control and the failure of the runabout and the sailboat to be profitable began to cause problems for Gordon Baker's position as head of the company. Added to this was the fact that Gordon had given up a consulting assignment from the Westinghouse nuclear program when he became heavily involved with the hydrofoil effort. Westinghouse paid considerably more per hour for Gordon's services than the Navy which was of direct benefit to the Baker Company. Based on these considerations a stockholders meeting was called with the objective of getting rid of Gordon. The Navy, not wanting to lose Gordon's hydrofoil expertise, sent a representative to the meeting. That representative was LCDR Robert Apple, USN. Bob's talk to the stockholders was so well received when he talked of Gordon's contribution and patriotism to the Navy's program that when Gordon agreed to give up the company's commercial hydrofoil program, his position was saved.

Gordon went on supporting the US Navy's hydrofoil program for a number of years. When the Navy's interest became focused on the landing craft goal of increasing the speed of these vehicles, Gordon again made major contributions. The Navy's interest was now directed more at submerged foil with automatic control systems. To explore the use of mechanical control systems the Navy entered into a contract with the Baker Manufacturing Company. The result was the production of HIGH TAIL a 24 foot craft with three controllable and retractable V-foils. Three sensing arms were in contact with the water and provided the input to the computer for control; see Figure (to be added later).

Baker Manufacturing also designed and built a full scale LCVP(H), HIGHLANDER; see Figure (to be added later). This craft was a larger version of the successful HIGH POCKETS. As electronic control systems became the preferred mode of control, no further use was made of Gordon's mechanical-control expertise, although many of his control techniques were incorporated in the electronic systems that followed.

Gordon Baker's interests in life were wide and varied. At one time he developed a mathematical model of the U.S. economic system based on vibration theory. The theory was based on using commercial discounting to control the up and down swings. Controlling positive discounting was used to stimulate the economy during periods of recession. During periods of inflation, controlled negative discounting would dampen the upswing. His arguments were mathematically and logically convincing. The big advantage that Gordon liked best was the fact this could be done by the private sector using the Chamber of Commerce or the Manufacturers Association as the stimulating organization, but not involving the government. Gordon wrote a paper on the subject and presented it to a number of recognized economists, the University of Chicago's Economic Department, and at a National Convention of Economists. He never once had a comment if it might work, if it wouldn't work or where it might be flawed. Perhaps the economists didn't understand the idea, but the concept is intriguing.

Author's footnote: In my professional experience I have known and worked with three technical geniuses. Gordon Baker was one of them. I marveled at his ability to turn complex mathematical equations into mechanical devices. This was demonstrated in the fire control systems he designed and the hydrofoils he built. In spite of his stockholder troubles he was an effective manager. After his arrival as the head of the company and even though he invested heavily in the hydrofoil concept he yearly made a substantial profit for the company. Gordon was also a delight to know. I treasure the times we spent together. While in the Navy, after the day's work was over, we would retreat to his house and engage in a ping pong match to see who would buy the dinner. After going to Miami Shipbuilding, the Baker Company used our facilities as their winter test site. We continued our close relationship and ping pong contests. It was with great regret that I learned of his passing. He would have made a great member of IHS.

Baker Hydrofoil Boat Makes Hit at Chicago Boat Show

Reprinted from the Evansville Review, Volume LXXXI No. 42, Thursday February 12, 1953

The Baker Manufacturing company's new hydrofoil boat at the 20th annual National Boat show in the International Amphitheater in Chicago is making quite a hit. The boat, which is one of the latest and surely the most practical applications of airplane lift, and airplane wing "flow-lift" principles to small boat operations, is manufactured in the plant here in Evansville.

This is a 14 foot Dunphy out-board runabout fitted with one of the hydrofoil kits developed and manufactured by the Baker organization. The hydrofoils producesufficient lift to raise the runabout completely out of water when in the operating speed range of 15-35 mile an hour. The curved "air-foil" sections of the hydrofoils carry the entire load on a fraction of the hull surface which otherwise would be in contact with water.

Water friction or drag is enormously reduced, and consequently power to drive the craft at any given speed is also less. Withe the boat raised as much as 18 inches above calm water at the keel line, it is obvious that an extraordinarily smooth and seemingly effortless ride is geven passengers. "The sensation," said a company engineer, "is exactly akin to flying in a small plane just off the surface of the water."

Turns can be made at high speed -- 35 miles an hour -- almost without banking, and without throwing spray. In water with waves up to a foot and a half high, the foils ride at a constant level and no rise and fall or tossing of the craft is noticeable. In slightly hgiher waves, speed must be reduced to permit the foils to rise and fall with waves -- but in any case, the craft rides more smoothly and drier with the foils in water, the maker asserts.

The kit, which costs about as much as an outboard motor, weighs 120 pounds when attached to the boat. A single large foil attaches to the bow of the boat and is the combined steering and lifiting surface there. Two smaller foils are attached at the stern to provide a steady three-point suspension when the craft is under way. The kit even includes an extension shaft for an outboard motor -- since this is required because the "flying" craft rides so high.

Each of the foils is shaped somewhat like a spring on a motor car, or a little like the bow of an archer's kit. The metal is duralumin, with a rounded leading edge, and concave upper and lower surface like the wing of a small airplane. The foils are roughly one-quarter inch in thickness and have a chord, or width, of about four inches.

Attaching fittings are so designed that both the bow and stern foils can be folded upward out of the water and either inboard or along the gunwales so that the craft is handy for mooring, for loading, and handling on a trailer. Cranking the foils into position for hydroflying is a two minute operation.

Other headlines in the same issue of the Evansville Review:

  • Coon Supper is Tonight at Temple
  • Decline Continues in State's Swiss Cheese Production
  • Traps 100 Foxes in Three Weeks
  • Fisher Outlines New Controls for Wireworms