Charles Baker, The Little-Known Inventor of The First Friction Radiator
Born into slavery in Savannah, Missouri on August 3, 1859, and was raised by his father with the help of a plantation owner’s wife after his mother died prior to his first birthday. Baker did not have any formal education in engineering, he was a self-taught mechanical engineer. The end of the Civil War marked the end of Baker’s enslavement and at age 15, Baker began his career as an assistant to his dad who was an express agent.
It was through this work experience that Baker realized his love for mechanical sciences due to his exposure to wagons and linchpins.
His curiosity as to how heat is produced through friction led him to probe further into friction. Some say he was fascinated by friction because through the process one could generate heat without necessarily tapping into a heat source. This alternative way of generating heat sparked the urge to create a device that could use the heat generated from friction.
So, on January 13, 1903, Baker invented and patented a radiator that heats up with friction. This was no mean feat because it took about 23 years for him to experiment with different types of metals and friction forms before he could come up with his friction heater.
Friction heat radiator was a green-energy option that if they were still in production today will not cause harm to the environment. Basically, he invented an alternative means of producing heat without combustion.
During his patent application, Baker stated that the friction heat could be produced with any mode of power like wind, water and gasoline. His device, according to him, was set to be the cheapest source of heat production at the time which made him win accolades such as ‘King of Clean Energy and ‘St. Joseph Negro Inventor.’ “Mr. Baker claims that the mode of power used in creating the friction is not essential. It may be wind, water, gasoline, or any other source of energy.
“The most difficult part of the inventor’s assertions to prove is that his system will light or heat a house at about half the cost of methods now in use,” The Draftsman 1908.
After years of trials, his device was near-perfect at the time it was invented. Baker’s device was made up of two metal cylinders, with one inserted into the other. A wooden spinning core was put in the centre to produce the friction. Any notable newsreels hailed his invention. “On March 27, 1904, the New York Times’ edition identified Baker’s invention as a “Clever Negro Invention”. Other newspapers such as Daily Gazette and News-Press also published his story in 1904 indicating that his invention would “revolutionize the then heating systems.”
Baker then created a factory called The Friction Heat and Boiler Company in 1904 in St. Joseph with him as the head of board of directors. His company employed 50 skilled and unskilled laborers to produce more radiators and had about $136,000 in capital stocks, equal to nearly $4 million today.
At the time, Baker’s capital stock was a lot of money which made him an affluent and honourable man in his hometown. His loyalty to his employees made his business thrive and although racial prejudice often posed as a threat to his finances, his business flourished.
Baker was the youngest of five children and got married in 1880 at age 21 to Carrie Carriger and they had a daughter, Lulu Belle Baker. On May 5, 1926, he died of pneumonia in his daughter’s home aged 66.