Baldwin was born in Fillmore, Millard County, Utah to Nathaniel B. Baldwin, a native of Ontario, Canada, and Margaret Ohler, a native of Philadelphia. Baldwin's family were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and his mother was his father's second polygamous wife. As a child, he was interested in technology and built his own bicycle and steam engine.
Baldwin studied at Brigham Young Academy (BYA), Utah State Agricultural College, and then Stanford University, receiving a degree in electrical engineering. He then returned to BYA to teach physics and theology and remained after its name changed to Brigham Young University (BYU). Though the LDS Church had officially discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890, and again in 1904, fellow professor John Tanner Clark convinced Baldwin the church was making a mistake. Since the LDS Church owned BYU, this led to Baldwin's firing and Clark's excommunication in 1905.
Inventing and business
Baldwin then worked at remote hydroelectric plants at the Snake Creek near Heber City and in East Mill Creek Canyon. He was also an electrician and air compressor operator while he experimented with sound amplification using compressed air. He used this to invent more sensitive receivers, which he made into the first modern headphones in 1910 and sold to the U.S. Navy. His first ones were made by hand in his kitchen and, despite the Navy's suggestion, never patented because he considered their invention "trivial."
In 1914, Baldwin started a business in East Millcreek, Utah called The Baldwin Radio Company. He powered the plant and the neighborhood through a hydroelectric generator which he made out of bicycle wheels and piano wire. The company peaked at 150 employees and $2 million in annual sales in the 1920s. One legend tells that Philo Farnsworth built his first television in Baldwin's factory.
Mormon fundamentalism and company bankruptcy
Baldwin used his success to help support the post-Manifesto polygamous movement in the 1920s. Many officers in his company were leading polygamists, including Lorin C. Woolley, John Y. Barlow, Israel Barlow, Leslie Broadbent, and Lyman Jessop. During this time, these employees drew up plans to create the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church) in southern Utah. He is considered the most important financial support to the Mormon fundamentalist community before his company failed.
Unwise investments, often with fellow supporters of polygamy, led to Baldwin's company's bankruptcy in 1924.
In a new business venture with his polygamous friends, Baldwin began selling stock for the Omega Investment Company, which led to his conviction for mail fraud in 1930 and two-year sentence at McNeil Island Federal Prison. After this period, Baldwin was never again able to recapture his previous success.
Despite his doctrinal support of polygamy, he married only once, to Elizabeth Ann Butler. They were the parents of seven children.
- Potter Genealogy entry on Baldwin
- Kirk, Andrew (April 14, 2008). "New Plans for Old Factory". Deseret News. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
- Bagley, Will (July 8, 2001). "Ruin Followed Riches for a Utah Genius". The Salt Lake Tribune. p. B1. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
- The Early Radio Industry and the United States Navy.He created the earphones(headphones) in his kitchen and sold it to The United States Army.
- Alder, Douglas D.; Karl F. Brooks. "History of Washington County". Utah History to Go: The New Polygamy. Utah State Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
- Driggs, Ken (Winter 1991). "Twentieth-Century Polygamy and the Fundamentalist Mormons in Southern Utah". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 24 (4): 47. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
- Singer, Merrill (Winter 1979). "Nathaniel Baldwin, Utah Inventor and Patron of the Fundamentalist Movement". Utah Historical Quarterly. 47 (1): 42–53.