Dr Harry Baker

Catalyst Science Discovery Centre

Billie the Bulb Billie the Bulb
Chlorine is used to clean pools... I like to do cannon bulbs when I go to the pool!
Dr Harry Baker

Dr Harry Baker was a truly gifted chemist and he was instrumental from 1897 onwards in developing the mercury rocking cell method for the creation of chlorine by the electrolysis of brine, pumped from mid-Cheshire, at Castner-Kellner Works at Weston Point near Runcorn in Cheshire. Chlorine has saved millions of lives worldwide in key areas of disinfection and still does.

Using his expertise and knowledge, he continually made major developments to this process and in 1902 he invented a new form of mercury rocking cell which dramatically increased production of both caustic soda and chlorine. Castner-Kellner Works became the largest chlorine producing factory in the world.

Over 120 years on, a modification of his method is still used today at Castner-Kellner works, in the production of chlorine. It is used for water treatment, production of PVC, manufacture of medicines, solar panels, bullet-proof vests and even computer chips. A world without chlorine products would be a challenging world for all of us.

The Jubilee book of the Castner-Kellner Company where Dr Harry Baker worked said: “Baker was a great pioneer and an inspiration to all who knew and worked for him.”

Harry Baker came from a non-scientific family but encouraged his sons to pursue science too by having an engineering workshop and a practical laboratory in outhouses at home.

Some important dates in history for Harry Baker

Chlorine discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and produced as a gas
Sir Humphry Davy called it an element and named it ‘chlorine’ from the Greek word ‘chlorus’ meaning greenish-yellow
In Austria, Semmelweiss used chlorine water to disinfect Doctors hands
5th July Harry Baker born in Bethnal Green, the eldest of 9 children
Baker family move to Manchester where his father works for Manchester and Salford Bank and Harry attends the Manchester Mechanics Institution
Harry Baker starts at Owens College aged 16 in the Chemistry Department with Professor Henry Roscoe and wins many prizes
He goes to study in Heidelberg with Professor Robert Bunsen before returning to Manchester as an Assistant Lecturer in the Chemistry Department
Moves to work at Aluminium Company at Oldbury in Worcestshire and met Hamilton Young Castner
Baker family move to Runcorn to live in Moughland Lane at a house called Epworth
Harry Baker starts as Works Chemist at Castner-Kellner Works
During Wold War 1, Harry, who is a Quaker, refuses to do any work relating refuses to do any work relating to the use of chlorine as a war gas and Wright and Wilson drive ambulances on the Western Front
Castner-Kellner Works becomes part of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI)
Harry Baker retires and was presented with a set of meteorological instruments which he used for many years afterwards in retirement in Leominster in Herefordshire

Did you know?

  • Chlorine is used in the production of wind turbine blades
  • Chlorine salts are used in fireworks
  • In World War 1 and World War 2 chlorine was a war gas used in the trenches
  • In World War 2 there were gas masks for babies or children up to 2 years old to stop them being poisoned by chlorine gas
  • Chlorine is used in the production of many medicines and drugs
  • Chlorine is used in the production of fibre optics and neoprene for gloves and swimsuits
  • You smell chlorine when you are in a swimming pool where it is used as a disinfectant.
  • Harry’s son, Wilson Baker, was the first person to give a lecture about penicillin after World War 2. He had worked with Florey and Fleming at Oxford on the development of synthetic penicillin in the 1940s.
  • Wilson Baker was a founding member of the Oxford Committee on Famine Relief which later became Oxfam and he opened the first Oxfam shop in Oxford. He died in 2002 aged 102.
  • Wright Baker, Harry’s older son, was chosen to open the copper scrolls from Qumran in Jordan, known as the Dead Sea scrolls. They allowed people to find out about the ancient languages of that part of the world.
  • The Bunsen burner used in school labs is called after Professor Robert Bunsen who Harry did research with in Heidelberg