Sunnen Products Co.; founded 1924
1929 founded Co.; Mfg. Electric Miller
1884 founded Machine; Cincinnati
The American economy boomed throughout most of the 1920s. For the first time, American families — no matter what their social status — were buying electric washing machines, refrigerators, gas stoves, and automobiles on credit. But even as installment buying was fueling the growth of industries such as appliances and automotive, it was also putting consumers further and further into debt. When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, the good times came to a screeching halt, triggering the start of the Great Depression. The automotive industry dominated the decade. By 1929, more than one half of all American families had cars, and one out of every eight workers was employed in an automotive-related job. The industry even changed how Americans worked, when, in 1926, Henry Ford introduced the five-day work week. Of course, Ford's move was not totally altruistic. His opinion was that the more time people had off, the more money they would spend.
Automakers weren't the only ones to benefit from America's love affair with the car. Many machine tool companies found success with automotive-related applications. Some even used automobiles to market their products.
One such company was started by a young garage mechanic named Joseph Sunnen. Tired of using bulky, knuckle-busting tools to remove valves from engine blocks, Sunnen devised and patented a lightweight, easy-to-use valve lifter hand tool.
To market his invention, Sunnen went to unusual extremes. He knew that he could sell the tool if he could demonstrate it to garage mechanics. So, he cut the roof of his 1917 Hupmobile and replaced it with a sleeping/storage compartment made of wood and canvas — quite possibly the world's first RV. He and his wife Cornelia then hit the road with 500 valve lifters and $4.29 in cash, traveling from garage to garage in the Midwest and sleeping in the "camper shell" overnight.
The success of his first trip let Sunnen begin full-time manufacturing operations. The business quickly expanded, and eventually became the Sunnen Products Co., which now sells honing machines, madrels, abrasives, and more.
The story of Owatonna Tool Co. (OTC later becomes SPX Corp.) parallels that of Sunnen Products. Its founder, Reuben Kaplan — yet another young mechanic — believed that conventional toolkits had a number of shortcomings. So, he designed his own tools for special service jobs and traveled from town to town to sell them.
During this time, Kaplan worked with Truth Tool in Mankato, Minn. But when promised royalties didn't materialize, Kaplan quit and founded OTC in 1925. His company's first product was the Grip-O-Matic universal gear puller.
Interestingly, Kaplan eventually got his revenge on the company that stiffed him. Years later, with OTC flourishing, Kaplan and Truth Tool crossed paths again, with Kaplan buying Truth and moving it to Owatonna.
Of course, entrepreneurial spirit was not limited to the auto industry. Many important companies also evolved from small machine shops or even personal workshops.
Moore Special Tool Company Inc. (later Moore Tool Company Inc.) started after founder Richard F. Moore landed a job in the toolroom of the Singer Sewing Machine Co. After three years with Singer, Moore left and started his own business in 1924. He equipped his jobshop with a secondhand, 14-in. Handy Lathe, one Brown and Sharpe Miller, one Producto Drill, a LeBlond Universal grinder, and a new American Shaper.
He hired a full-time toolmaker and a boy to run errands.
Originally focused on supply contract machining and toolmaking services to the large industrial manufacturing base in New England, the company quickly realized the need for higher levels of precision and productivity. This insight led to the development of Moore's first product, the Jig Borer, in 1932.
Another early entrepreneur, Niels C. Miller, started his jobshop a little closer to home, in his basement. In 1929, he built an AC welder for stick welding that was smaller, lighter, and less expensive than DC welders of the time. It also used single-phase instead of three-phase power, so it could be plugged into any wall outlet. This welder, the first in a broad line of products offered by Miller Electric Mfg. Co., was constructed out of scrap sheet steel, core, and coil materials.
Welders weren't the only thing running on electricity in the 1920s. By 1929, electricity operated approximately 70% of American factory machinery, compared to 30% just 15 years earlier. Rather than using belts for power, machine tools suddenly used motor drives, and another new technology, hydraulic transmissions, quickly emerged.
One of the companies benefiting from the charge toward electrically operated machines was Baldor Electric Co. in St. Louis. Formed in 1920 by Edwin C. Ballman, the company produced electric motors. Its 1924 catalog stated,
"We have designed our motors to have high efficiencies . . . motors that will give service on a minimum energy input."
As for hydraulic power, the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. blazed a trail by applying it to high-production machine tools, allowing them to feed work more powerfully and precisely. These Hydromatic machines, introduced in 1927, used hydraulics to move the worktable.
Innovations like the Hydromatics helped the Mill, as it was commonly referred to, become the largest machine tool builder in the U.S. By 1929, the company had sold more than $10 million in machine tools.
While the American metalworking industry was leapfrogging ahead in the 1920s, there were significant startups in other parts of the world. For instance, in 1921, Chiron-Werke opened for business in Tuttlingen, Germany. The company made precision surgical instruments for the medical field and took the name Chiron from a figure in classical Greek mythology who was said to have possessed great knowledge and astounding manual dexterity. Later, the company, which also manufactured automobiles, evolved into Chiron America Inc., a manufacturer of vertical machining centers, CNC drilling and tapping machines, manufacturing cells, and more.
The Japanese were also making great strides in the area of precision machining, and consequently, needed instruments to measure and advance this precision. Therefore, in 1928, a small company, called Tsugami Seisakusho Co. Ltd., was formed. The company began with a line of accurate micrometers and block gages and quickly moved into the business of designing and building universal measuring machines and circular dividing machines. By the mid-1930s, this small company, which eventually became Mitsui Seiki Inc., began building machine tools such as jig borers and cylindrical grinding machines.
And perhaps one of the greatest technologies conceived overseas was a new cutting tool material, tungsten carbide, which was introduced by Krupp AG and exhibited for the first time at Leipzig Spring Fair in 1927. The tooling was called WIDIA, an acronym of the German words Wie Diamant, meaning "like diamond." Interestingly, H. Prussing, head of Krupp's patent office, devised the name on an envelope.
Of course, Americans were also studying this new material. Dr. Samuel Hoyt of General Electric's Lamp Department began experimenting with tungsten carbide in 1925. Recognizing the commercial value of his discoveries, GE introduced its own brand under the name Carboloy. Early products included turning toolbars and inserts used in the automotive, farm, off-road, aerospace, and mold and die industries.
Machine tools that were able to take advantage of the higher metal removal rates of the new cutting tools soon appeared on the market.
In addition to all the technological innovations, the 1920s also marked two other important industry events. The first was the first Machine Tool Show (which later evolved into the International Manufacturing Technology Show or IMTS). Sponsored by the National Machine Tool Builders' Association, the show opened September 19, 1927, and ran for five days in Cleveland.
And the second milestone? AMERICAN MACHINIST celebrated it 50th year in publication, of course.
Magnus Wahlstrom and Rudolph Bannow Bridgeport Machines Inc.
Bridgeport Milling Machines are known throughout the world, but few know that these machines came about because two Swedish immigrants were looking to make it big selling electronically operated hedge clippers. Magnus Wahlstrom and Rudolph Bannow started their hedge-clipper business in 1929, but soon scrapped the idea to develop a portable, self-contained 1 /4-hp high-speed milling attachment. The attachment did so well, even during the Depression, that they developed a second model with a 1 /2-hp drive. But customers kept complaining about mounting such a nice attachment on their old equipment, so, in 1938, Bannow sketched out an idea for a milling machine with a built-in 1 /4-hp high-speed milling head .
Companies founded in the 1920s
Baldor Electric Co. (1920), Chiron America Inc. (1921), W. Schneeberger AG (1923), Moore Tool Co. Inc. (1924), Sunnen Products Co. (1924), SPX Corp. (1925), WidiaValenite (1926), Carboloy Inc. (1928), Magnetic Analysis Corp. (1928), Mitsui Seiki (U.S.A.) Inc. (1928), Pyrometer Instrument Co. Inc. (1928), Bridgeport Machines (1929), Miller Electric Mfg. Co. (1929), National Broach and Machine Co. (1929)