In the 1920s, the sleepy Salt Lake County farming community of East Mill Creek was home to Utah's first high-tech boom. The Baldwin Radio Company employed 150 men and women around the clock, producing a remarkable variety of gadgets, including "Baldy Phones," the first radio headsets. Few remember that Nathaniel Baldwin, an eccentric Utahn, invented headphones in 1910. During the Roaring '20s, his company generated $2 million in yearly sales, worth 10 times that amount today.
Baldwin was born to a pioneer family in Fillmore in 1878. As a child, he was "always building things," including his own bicycle and steam engine. To get an education, he walked the 120 miles to Provo (which the young inventor found as exotic as the "golden city of Baghdad") and began working his way through Brigham Young Academy. He later studied physics and electrical engineering at Stanford.
Baldwin's devotion to certain quaint LDS doctrines cost him his professorship at the Y. in 1905. He supported his family running remote hydroelectric plants on Snake Creek near Heber City and in East Mill Creek Canyon. After finding that he couldn't hear the LDS General Conference speakers at the Tabernacle, Baldwin devised a way to amplify sound. Bewildered visitors to East Mill Creek Canyon soon reported hearing unearthly voices echoing off the canyon walls, the product of Baldwin's compressed-air sound amplifier.
Baldwin could not interest any private company in producing the world's first headphones, but when the U.S. Navy ordered 100 headsets on the eve of World War I, he was on the road to riches. To power the plant he built on 2300 East, Baldwin dammed East Mill Creek and built a generator out of bicycle wheels and piano wire. Hydropower soon lighted up not only his factory but the entire neighborhood, and he paid his workers the princely sum of four dollars a day.
Baldwin also designed radio speakers, including the deluxe Master-Baldwin Throatype Clarophone, said to be shaped like opera star Enrico Caruso's throat. According to legend, Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the cathode ray tube, built the world's first television in Baldwin's factory.
Like many geniuses, Baldwin was neither a fiscal wizard nor a good judge of character. He turned down an offer of more than $1 million for his company to protect his employees' jobs. His remarkable generosity made him an easy mark. To complicate matters, Baldwin was devoted to the doctrine of polygamy and believed in the coming of "one Mighty and Strong" who would "bring forth the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon." He financed construction of twelve bungalows known as "polygamy alley" that still line Evergreen Avenue and invested $50,000 in a worthless "dream mine" in Farmington Canyon.
More than 200,000 orders for Baldwin headsets poured in, in 1922. But as many subsequent high-tech firms have learned, success can lead to financial disaster. Competition led to a cash-flow crisis and Baldwin's polygamous comrades beguiled him into a series of predatory deals. By 1924, he was bankrupt. Baldwin won back control of his company, but his shady colleagues persuaded him to sell stock in the Omega Investment Company. He was convicted of mail fraud in 1930 and served two years at McNeil Island Federal Prison. He returned to Utah a broken man.
An impoverished Nathaniel Baldwin continued his inventive ways until his death at his son's home on January 19, 1961, but he never recaptured his lost glory. His factory still stands, hidden next to the woods behind the East Mill Creek Library, a forgotten monument to a troubled genius.
Hyrum Debenham, Will Bagley's great-grandfather, helped Nathaniel Baldwin electrify East Mill Creek.