Scientist Kenneth Baird helped redefine meter length
Kenneth Baird, brilliant scientist, polymath and inventor who died at the age of 99, accomplished so much in his long life that it’s hard to know what to list first. Perhaps his greatest achievement was using lasers with his team at the National Research Council in Ottawa to help establish a new international standard for the length of one meter.
As a young man, he created a high-speed camera that could shoot 800,000 frames per second. In 1946 it made the front page of The Globe and Mail and the following year it was featured in Popular Mechanics.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Baird filed a patent for a reflective coating to make coins more difficult to counterfeit. The invention was first used on Canadian currency in 1986, at a time when modern printers made it easy to counterfeit money. Other countries have also adopted his technique.
All of this was possible thanks to Dr. Baird’s specialist knowledge of optics, nothing to do with glasses but the wavelengths of light.
Take the meter.
The meter was first established as a unit of measurement by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, during the French Revolution. It was defined as a fraction of the distance between the equator and the North Pole. At an international meeting in Paris in 1960, the meter was redefined in terms of a specific number of wavelengths of a particular type of light. The new standard was based on the work of experts around the world, including Dr. Baird, whose work at the National Research Council involved light traveling in a vacuum.
Dr. Baird and his team have developed a simple system incorporating a helium-neon (HeNe) laser for use in metrology, or the science of measurement. Among the many practical benefits of a highly accurate measuring unit is that engine parts can be machined more accurately, according to John Hall, an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005.
Dr. Baird drove from Ottawa to Dr. Hall’s lab in Boulder, Colorado, in 1983 so the two could work on an experiment together.
“His ideas were visionary,” Dr. Hall said in a recent phone interview. Dr. Baird then returned to Canada to continue his work.
“The decade 1960-1970 saw the development of laser control techniques in laboratories around the world, including the NRC Ottawa laboratory of KM Baird,” said Dr Hall in a speech in honor of Dr Baird . He went on to explain the intricacies of the measurement technique.
“The HeNe laser from Baird and Hanes…has become the most effective reference laser system for practical metrology and has been adopted by laboratories around the world,” Dr. Hall said in his speech.
When he was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2015, Dr. Baird was 92 years old and the oldest person to receive this honour. The citation mentioned his work in metrology and referred to the Bank of Canada’s work to “develop a technique for coating documents with a reflective film that helps protect our currency against counterfeiting.”
Kenneth MacClure Baird was born in 1923 in Qinyang, Henan, China, then known as Hwaikingfu, where his father, also Kenneth, was a doctor and missionary. Even as a boy, he was known as Mac, an abbreviation of his middle name. His mother, Isabelle (née McCurdy), was in 1917 one of the first women to graduate from the faculty of music at Dalhousie University. She was related to John Alexander McCurdy, pilot of the Silver Dart in 1909, the first person to fly an airplane in the British Empire.
Dr. Baird’s older brother, David, recalled that while their parents struggled to learn Mandarin, the Baird children soaked it up.
When Kenneth was three years old, the family moved back to Canada.
“In 1925-26, unrest and military action in China forced my parents to return to Canada after about five years there. With their four little boys and what they could carry in their hand luggage, they escaped [Henan] and returned to Fredericton,” David Baird said in a speech on his brother’s 90th birthday. He then talked about crossing the Bay of Fundy on a ferry.
“It was on this ship that, at almost 6 years old, I was assigned to look after three-year-old Little Mac. As we walked along the deck hand in hand…chatting in Chinese mandarin, a man, also pacing on deck, passed by, leaned over to Mac and asked, “How are you little boy?”
“Mac froze. I knew he wouldn’t talk [perfect] English, so I leaned over and translated the question into Chinese. The answer came back, and I still remember looking up, really high, because I was about three feet tall and the man about six, and saying, “He says he’s fine.”
The family spent most of their post-Chinese life in Saint John, where the children attended school. Kenneth went to the University of New Brunswick and after graduating in 1943 he joined the laboratories of the National Research Council of Canada where he researched aerial reconnaissance photography and high speed kinephotography .
After the war he went to Britain on a scholarship where he obtained his doctorate in solid-state physics at the University of Bristol, where he also met his future wife.
“My mother, Erna Jaggi, was a Swiss au pair; she was invited to a prom at the university and that’s where they met. I think my mother was only 19. They had a wonderful 60-year marriage,” his daughter Esther Baird said.
Dr. Baird’s life outside the lab was as creative as his work. He enjoyed making things for his children and had several hobbies.
He learned to fly and with friends from work bought a Piper Colt, a small two-seater used mainly for training. It was slow, cheap to own, and easy to fly. He also bought a second-hand Chris-Craft motorboat that can accommodate four people.
He castored in his basement workshop on family-related projects.
“One of the things he designed was more efficient speed skating blades so he could skate with my younger brother, Adrian, in the father-son triathlon on the Rideau Canal,” Ms. Baird said.
His eldest son, Ken Baird, operated a gold mine in the Yukon for 10 years. Dr. Baird helped him by designing a more efficient gold sluice machine.
“My father never spoiled his children with material things, but he did so with his time and vast knowledge of just about everything. The family household never hired a mechanic, electrician, plumber, mason, carpenter or tradesman. My dad could do it all. When my older brother, Ken, and I were young, my dad took us to his lab and showed us how to develop photographs. I had no knowledge of than black-and-white photos, but my brother learned to produce them in color,” Ms Baird said.
David Baird, also an accomplished scientist, was an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was a geologist who, among other things, was instrumental in the development of Gros Morne National Park and was the founding director of the National Museum of Science and Technology. He died in 2019.
Golf was a passion for Kenneth Baird and one of his children said he studied the science of his golf swing. He couldn’t resist explaining everything in terms of physics.
OPTICA (formerly the Optical Society of America), of which Dr Baird was president in the 1980s, published an obituary saying: “Baird was a true Renaissance man with a wide range of interests and a joy to live inexhaustibly. He was passionate about golf, but also about skiing, sailing and flying. He traveled the world, spoke German and French and loved classical music.
Dr. Baird was mentally sharp until the end. “If you want to know the essence of the man, two days before his death as he maneuvered to sit in his chair, he announced to everyone present: ‘When you sit down, it is very important to maintain your center of gravity on the chair to avoid falling,” recalls his daughter Esther.
Predeceased by his wife, Dr. Baird leaves his children, Ken, Esther, Jennifer and Adrian, and two grandchildren.