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Scientist Kenneth Baird died in Ottawa on April 18 at the age of 99.Courtesy of Optica

Kenneth Baird, a brilliant scientist, polymath and inventor who has died at the age of 99, accomplished so much in his long life that it is 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 set a new international standard for the length of a metre.

As a younger man he created a high-speed camera that could snap 800,000 pictures a second. In 1946 it made headlines in The Globe and Mail and the next year was featured in Popular Mechanics.

In the early seventies Dr. Baird filed a patent for a reflective coating to make currencies harder to counterfeit. The invention was first used on Canadian currency in 1986, a time when modern printers made counterfeiting currency easier. Other countries also adopted his technique.

All of this was possible because of Dr. Baird’s specialist knowledge of optics, nothing to do with eyeglasses but wavelengths of light.

Take the metre.

The metre was first established as a unit of measure by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, during the French Revolution. It was defined as a fraction of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. At an international meeting in Paris in 1960, the metre was redefined in terms of a specific number of wavelengths of a particular kind of light. The new standard was based on work by experts around the world including Dr. Baird, whose work at the National Research Council involved light travelling in a vacuum.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Baird filed a patent for a reflective coating to make currencies harder to counterfeit.Courtesy of the Family

Dr. Baird and his team 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 an extremely precise unit of measurement is the fact that parts for engines can be machined with more accuracy, according to John Hall, an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2005.

Dr. Baird drove from Ottawa to Dr. Hall’s lab in Boulder, Colo., in 1983 so the two could work together on an experiment.

“His ideas were visionary,” Dr. Hall said in a recent telephone interview. Dr. Baird then returned to Canada to continue his work.

“The 1960-1970 decade saw development of laser-control techniques in labs all across the world, specifically including the NRC Ottawa lab of K.M. Baird,” Dr. Hall said in a speech honouring Dr. Baird. He went on to explain the complexities of the measuring technique.

“The Baird and Hanes HeNe laser … became the uniquely effective reference laser system for practical metrology, and was adopted by labs 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 and the oldest person ever to receive the honour. The citation mentioned his work in metrology, and touched on work for the Bank of Canada to “develop a technique for coating documents with reflective film that helps protect our currency against counterfeiting.”

Kenneth MacClure Baird was born in 1923 in Qinyang, Henan, China, which was then known as Hwaikingfu, where his father, also Kenneth, was a medical doctor and a missionary. Even as boy he was known as Mac, an abbreviation of his middle name. His mother, Isabelle (née McCurdy), in 1917 was one of the first women to graduate from Dalhousie University’s faculty of music. She was related to John Alexander McCurdy, pilot of the Silver Dart in 1909, the first person to fly a plane in the British Empire.

Dr. Baird’s older brother, David, recalled that while their parents struggled to learn Mandarin, the Baird children were soaking it up.

When Kenneth was three years old the family moved back to Canada.

“In 1925-26 unrest and military action in China made it necessary for my parents to return to Canada after some 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 went on to talk about crossing the Bay of Fundy on a ferry.

“It was on that ship that I, at nearly 6, was charged with the care of Little Mac, aged three. As we walked along the deck hand in hand … chattering away in Mandarin Chinese, a man, also pacing the deck, passed by, leaned down to Mac, and asked: ‘How are you little boy?’

“Mac froze. I knew that he would not speak [perfect] English, so I leaned down and translated the question in Chinese. Back came the reply, and I can still remember looking up, way up, for I was about three feet and the man about six, and replying, ‘He says he’s fine.’”

Dr. Baird headed the National Research Council’s division of optical physics.National Film Board of Canada

The family spent most of their post-China life in Saint John, where the children went to school. Kenneth went on to the University of New Brunswick and after graduating in 1943 joined Canada’s National Research Council laboratories where he did research on aerial reconnaissance photography and high-speed cinephotography.

After the war he went to Britain on a scholarship where he earned his doctorate in solid state physics at Bristol University, where he also met his future wife.

“My mother, Erna Jaggi, was a Swiss au pair; she was invited to a dance at the university and that’s where they met. I think my mother was just 19. They had a wonderful marriage of 60 years,” his daughter Esther Baird said.

Dr. Baird’s life outside the laboratory was as creative as his work. He loved to make things for his children and took up several hobbies.

He learned how to fly and with some friends from work bought a Piper Colt, a small two-seater used mostly for training. It was slow, cheap to own and easy to fly. He also bought second-hand Chris-Craft motorboat that slept four.

He beavered away in his basement workshop on family-related projects.

“One thing 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 oldest son, Ken Baird, operated a gold mine in the Yukon for 10 years. Dr. Baird helped him by designing a more efficient gold sluicing machine.

“My father never spoiled his children with material things, but he did with his time and vast knowledge of just about everything. The family household never engaged a mechanic, electrician, plumber, mason, carpenter, or any tradesman. My dad knew how to do it all. When my older brother, Ken, and I were young, my father took us to his laboratory, and showed us how to develop photographs. I mastered only black and white photos, but my brother learned how to produce them in colour,” 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 served as president in the 1980s, ran a notice of his death saying, “Baird was a genuine renaissance man with a vast range of interests and an inexhaustible zest for life. He was passionate about golf, as well as skiing, sailing and flying. He travelled the world, spoke German and French, and enjoyed classical music.”

Dr. Baird was mentally sharp until the end. “If you want the essence of the man, two days before he died as he was manoeuvring to sit down in his chair, he announced to all those present, ‘When you sit down it is very important to maintain your centre of gravity over the chair in order to avoid falling,’” his daughter Esther recalled.

Predeceased by his wife, Dr. Baird leaves his children, Ken, Esther, Jennifer and Adrian, and two grandchildren.