Warming to the Task  

Charles Baker ‘s Friction Heater


“Peter, papa said we gotta grease the axle again.” Charles yelled to his brother, returning from gathering a load of apples at Swenson’s orchard. “It’s makin’ that awful noise and hard to pull.  Ol’ Pepper’s workin’ up a sweat before we even get to the road.”


Peter had jumped from the cart to open the barnyard gate, prepared to bring the aged but sturdy Belgian in for a quick wash before leading him to his stall.

“Okay, I’ll get the grease and meet you under the Hickory,” Peter replied, running to the shed while Charles guided the chestnut mare with the speckled mane and tail under the shadow of the spreading bows.  A light rain had begun to fall as sounds of thunder rumbled through the gently rolling hills.


Set to apply an ample amount of lubricant to the creaky core, Charles recoiled, stunned by the surge of intense heat radiating from the hub. Then, marveling at pea sized puffs of steam jumping from the axle, resulting from drops of rain contacting the heated surface, he exclaimed,  

“Peter look at this. I can’t believe it gets so hot just riding from here to Swenson’s.”

“Yeah, I know.” Peter replied, “That’s why papa told us to grease the wheels before we left.”


Later that evening Charles delved into one of the many volumes assembled in his father’s book collection, researching the effects of friction and its heat producing qualities.  Born into slavery in the summer of 1859 in Savannah Missouri, Charles’ was the youngest of five children. Mother Betsey Mackay died when he was 3 months old and he and siblings Annie, Susie, Ellen, and Peter were raised by their father Abraham, with the assistance of Sallie Mackay, wife of the plantation owner.


After the Civil War and liberation, Abe Baker became an express agent, handling postal correspondence in Northwest Missouri. This was during the period in American history known as the Reconstruction Era, when a series of Congressional actions, including the Enforcement Acts, provided relief to newly emancipated captives. After years of servitude, there now existed legal standing to avail themselves of privileges long enjoyed by most other citizens of the land.


During this period of opportunity a number of formerly enslaved individuals took to heart the mantra spoken of by former slave, distinguished author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, describing the spirit of the beleaguered host prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:

"We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky ... we were watching ... by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day ... we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”


Many were elected as Senators and Congressmen from the same States in which they and their predecessors had toiled and suffered. For a time, President Ulysses S. Grant effectively used the Enforcement Acts to counter opposition to Reconstruction from the Ku Klux Klan, all but eliminating its influence. Even so, the elder Baker cautioned his youth to be ever vigilant, as a backlash would surely materialize, seeking to turn back the progress achieved by those who so bravely ventured forth.



After serving as his father’s postal assistant, Charles attended Franklin College, furthering his education with an emphasis on the mechanical sciences. Upon completing his training he returned to northwest Missouri, intent on developing a concept retained in the back of his mind from boyhood days.


Recalling his research into the properties of resistance possessed by certain materials, he experimented with items rummaged from scrap piles throughout the county. Repeating the processes over and over, he worked ceaselessly, trying to discover the elusive factors involved in isolating and harnessing energy that would allow him to generate heat without relying on an auxiliary heating source.


Finally, after much trial and error, he devised an apparatus consisting of two metal cylinders, one inside of the other, with a revolving wooden core. A layer of water between the metal canisters absorbed the heat produced by the friction from the rotating core; converting it to steam that was in turn piped throughout the system. Some twenty-three years from its inception, while taking stock of an overheated wagon wheel, his idea had made the transformation from concept to reality.


On January 13, 1903 Baker secured U. S. patent #718071 for the Friction Heater. Baker’s ingenuity attracted stakeholders willing to finance production of his device and by 1904 the Friction Heat & Boiler Company was operating in downtown St. Joseph.  Capital outlays from investors totaled $136,000, an enormous amount at that time, and in spite of significant obstacles the company thrived, eventually employing more than 50 skilled and unskilled laborers at its 611 Francis St. location.


On March 27, 1904, the New York Times made mention of Baker’s invention, calling it a “Clever Negro Invention”, and local publications the St. Joseph Gazette and News-Press published his story, predicting the invention would revolutionize commonly used heating systems.


In his patent application Baker stated the friction necessary to power the heater could be initiated using any mode of power including wind, gasoline, or water; making the device more efficient and cost effective than other types of heating systems.


To be sure the success of the venture was not without its challenges. Eventually the operation was beset by multiple lawsuits from swindlers claiming ownership of the device. But Baker was able to prevail, retaining the rights to his invention; though the preponderance of legal actions took their toll, leaving him with minimal cash reserves.


But one thing they couldn’t take was the sense of fulfillment he experienced in making a significant contribution to society, demonstrating the value of all its citizens;

“I wanted to share my invention with the whole world and to have a monument of memory left to the race of my people,” he stated.                                                                                                      Gary S.Wilkinson

Researched by Trevor Tutt and Gary Wilkinson III

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