Baker and Perkins: Inventive engineers

by Laurie Gorton
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In the late 19th century, two North Americans laid the foundations for technology that would utterly change the way bread, cookies, crackers and snacks are made. Today, the company carrying forward the legacies of Joseph Baker (1766-1849) and Jacob Perkins (1823-92) continues to bear their names, and the influence of these class of 2016 Baking Hall of Fame inductees can be felt in hundreds of thousands of bakeries around the world that operate Baker Perkins equipment every day.

Engineering genius characterized both men. Mr. Perkins was a prolific inventor who moved to England from Massachusetts in 1819. Much of his work and that of his successors involved steam technologies, including a steam oven for baking bread. Mr. Baker, a Canadian, invented a simple combined flour scoop and sifter for household use. He moved his successful business from Ontario to England in the 1870s.

Mr. Perkins held 21 American and 19 British patents for various types of steam-powered machinery, although it was his son, Angier March Perkins, who first applied steam to baking ovens. Another son, Loftus Perkins, is credited with making the crucial breakthrough, the stopped-end steam tube oven, which he patented in 1865. This transformed baking of bread in ovens because, until this time, there was no satisfactory way of controlling oven temperature.

The key invention by Mr. Baker was a handheld flour sifter, patented in Canada in 1870 and the US in 1871. Only three years after transferring his business to the UK, he developed biscuit-making machinery, the first time that a sector of the food industry had been mechanized. Invention of travelling and stationary ovens soon followed. Joseph Baker & Sons Ltd. rapidly became the most important food machinery manufacturer in the UK.

A.M. Perkins & Son Ltd., the business established in 1830 by his son, Angier, continued his father’s fascination with steam technologies. At one point, its steam engines and boilers were represented by Joseph Baker & Sons. When Perkins came out with its own steam oven, the two companies became fierce rivals. During World War I, however, they teamed up to build automated baking equipment for armies in the field. In 1920, they merged to form Baker Perkins Ltd.

“The pioneering efforts of Joseph Baker and Jacob Perkins in the introduction of automated bread plants in the 19th century started a process of continual improvement that is still ongoing,” said Brett Warburton, director, Warburtons Ltd., Bolton, UK, and a member of the 2015 class of the Baking Hall of Fame. “The development of today’s high-output, hygienic, sophisticated equipment can be traced back to their initiative and abilities.”

Underpinning the post-war success of the company was development of its apprenticeship program. Dick Preston, president of the Baker Perkins Historical Society, Peterborough, UK, noted that it “provided trained engineers to the world at large [and] set a level of excellence recognized both nationally and internationally today.” He is one who benefited from this program.

Another former employee, Clive Tolson, president of Baker Thermal Solutions, Clayton, NC, remembered how many of his colleagues at Baker Perkins went through the company’s craft and engineering apprenticeships or commercial training programs. “As I travel the world today, it is rare for me to not meet someone who was trained by or worked for Baker Perkins,” he said.

The two founders never met. “Although Jacob Perkins and Joseph Baker never actually worked together, they were the patriarchs that set these companies on a course that later changed the history of baking forever,” said Rowdy Brixey, director of engineering for Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, PA, when nominating the pair to the Baking Hall of Fame.

The influence of the inventors is also felt in the company’s culture. A former employee, Robert A. Wells, now senior account manager for Baker Thermal Solutions, said he often quoted to his customers the phrase from a company brochure, “We aren’t satisfied thinking our equipment or methods are the best they can be.”

Dan Smith, general manager, Baker Perkins, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, observed, “The original values exhibited by Joseph Baker and Jacob Perkins continue to influence the evolution and focus of Baker Perkins and its contribution to the industry.”

Baker Perkins Ltd. is headquartered in Peterborough with a US office at Grand Rapids, MI. It operates innovation centers at both locations and is now owned by a private investor. The Baker Perkins Historical Society maintains www.bphs.net, which provides rich details about the company and its founders.

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