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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

MACHINE TOOL INDUSTRY - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

MACHINE TOOL INDUSTRY. FRANK A. SCOTT†, a Clevelander at the forefront of the machine tool industry during the early 1900s, once remarked that no metal could be available for modern uses until a machine tool has been applied to shape it. For years, machine tools--power-operated, metal-working machines by which other machines are built--helped to shape the City of Cleveland, its workforce, and industrial expansion. Although a small industry by nature and overshadowed by the city's dominant IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY, machine tool manufacturers flourished in Cleveland from the 1880s through the 1940s, only in recent years faced with the onslaught of overseas competition, corporate mergers and buyouts, and the rapid decline during the 1980s of the national machine tool industry.

During the 1700s a need for accurate cylinders for steam engines first brought machine tooling companies to manufacturers on America's northeast coast. Then Eli Whitney's introduction of interchangeable parts for mass production of firearms created a surge in demand for machine tools in New England. After the Civil War, as American industry spread from the East Coast to the growing Midwest, machine tooling moved with it and eventually to Cleveland. The city boasted well-developed transportation routes, using the Great Lakes and the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL to move raw materials from the mines of Michigan and Pennsylvania. The discovery of iron and the growing steel industry in the city was attracting a large pool of trained craftsmen, many of them Yankee mechanics migrating west. Entrepreneurs in Cleveland were also founding companies to manufacture ships, hardware, sewing machines, bicycles, and automobiles. These factors, combined with the wealth that followed the growth of the iron and steel industry in Cleveland, would nurture some of the most enterprising and successful machine tool manufacturers in the U.S.

By the 1870s many companies in Cleveland were already designing machine tools to meet their specific manufacturing needs. The first company, however, to manufacture machine tools for market production was the Cleveland Twist Drill Co. JACOB D. COX†, one of its founders, had worked for years in the rolling mills of Cleveland, learning the iron and tool business at the Cleveland Iron Co. and the CUYAHOGA STEAM FURNACE CO., then left the city to help form a venture in Dunkirk, NY, making twist drills. In less than a year, he and his partners moved the small machine tool company to Cleveland and in 1876 began manufacturing general machine tools and drills. Eventually, the Cleveland Twist Drill Co. would expand to Chicago and New York, establish one of the earliest industrial laboratories in the city by hiring trained metallurgists, and break the world's record in 1911 for the fastest drilling of cast iron.

Other eastern manufacturers followed the Cleveland Twist Drill Co. to the, city. The availability of capital attracted the National Acme Co. of Connecticut, which later merged with the National Screw & Tack Co. of Cleveland to create the National Acme Screw Manufacturing Co. In 1915 the company bought another Connecticut machine tool manufacturer, Windsor Machine Co., combining Windsor and National Acme's technology to become one of the largest producers of multiple spindle bar machines in the country. An eastern-trained craftsman, A.W. Foote, formerly employed by one of the largest machine tool companies in New England, moved to Cleveland to set up his business, the Foote-Burt Co., as a producer of drilling machines and, later, broaching machines. Other successful companies also appeared in the city by the turn of the century, many of them founded by Clevelanders trained on the shop floors of these transplanted Yankee firms.

WARNER & SWASEY CO., however, would rise above all others in Cleveland, eventually becoming a world leader in the production of turret lathes and telescopes, and placing the city among the greatest machine tool centers in the nation. Moving from Chicago to Cleveland to take advantage of the trained mechanics there, Warner & Swasey strongly influenced the entire industry in the company's refinement of machine tool design and accuracy in production, in part because of its specialized design and construction of equatorial drives and refraction telescopes. By combining machine tooling with scientific instrumentation, Warner & Swasey gave the machine tool industry new prestige among engineering and scientific communities, while bringing the company into a vanguard position within the industry itself.

The development of the machine tool industry in Cleveland closely parallels its early evolution in New England. As in the East, Cleveland's machine tool growth was stimulated by industrial growth. With the expansion of industries producing ships, hardware, sewing machines, bicycles, and, eventually, automobiles, all of which needed large volumes of identical and interchangeable parts, manufacturers often developed machine tools to meet their specific needs and later formed subsidiaries to manufacture those machine tools in response to the market's demand. While New England's textile and firearms industries sparked the manufacture of machine tools, metalworking industries formed the basis for the machine tool industry's growth in Cleveland. The White Sewing Machine Co. could attribute success, in part, to its development of a multi-spindle automatic screw machine for the manufacture of sewing machines, bicycles, and, briefly, automobiles. The company eventually formed a subsidiary, Cleveland Automatic Screw Machine Co., to manufacture its automatic screw machines for the market. Standard Tool Co., a manufacturer of twist drills, became a branch business of Bingham & Co., which originally developed the twist drill for its own needs.

Cleveland's machine tool industry also followed the New England tradition of encouraging, talented mechanics and engineers from other machine tool shops to set up new businesses of their own. Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney, co-founders of one of the most successful machine tool companies in America, worked 10 years for another machine tool shop in Hartford before opening their own. Their company's influence over Cleveland's machine tool industry was tremendous: AMBROSE SWASEY† and WORCESTER WARNER† of Warner & Swasey Co.; Edwin Henn and Remholdt Hakewessel, founders of National Acme Co; A.W. Foote, founder of Foote-Burt Co., all leaders in the manufacture of machine tools in Cleveland, were trained as young men at Pratt & Whitney. Those Cleveland men, in turn, educated future industry leaders: Warner & Swasey employed men the likes of Frank Kempsmith, who eventually founded companies in Cincinnati and Milwaukee; George C. Bardons and John Oliver, founders of BARDONS & OLIVER, INC. of Cleveland; and Henry Lucas, an apprentice who rose to chief draftsman at Warner & Swasey and later established Lucas Machine Tool Co. in Cleveland.

The years between 1890 and 1930 might be considered a "golden age" of machine tooling in Cleveland and across the Midwest. With the introduction of mass-produced automobiles to American consumers, manufacturers could hardly keep ahead of the demand for new machine tools. In response to the rapidly expanding automotive industry, a small explosion of new machine tool companies in the Midwest occurred. Although Cincinnati remained a hub of machine tool production, not only for Ohio but for much of the midwest, Cleveland attracted many smaller companies and fostered healthy growth for its larger manufacturers.

Many of Cleveland's smaller companies would not survive the future economic turn of the machine tool industry after World War I. Other small businesses would be driven from the market by the eventual concentration of automotive production in southeastern Michigan, giving machine tool companies in Illinois, lower Michigan, and northeastern Ohio a competitive advantage of proximity over Cleveland. However, those that did survive--LEES-BRADNER CO., Hill-Clutch Co., Motch-Merryweather Co. (see MOTCH CORP.), Bardons & Oliver, and others--would join the largest machine tool manufacturers of the city to propel Cleveland, by 1933, into 3rd place in the country in machine tool production. Frank A. Scott, another Warner & Swasey protege, became a national leader and spokesman for the machine tool industry during this period. Scott tracked the growth and development of the industry during his years as manager and president of Warner & Swasey and while serving on U.S. war production boards during World War I. In his extensive writings on the machine tool industry, Scott was not only a promoter of the industry during boom years in the early 1900s, but in some ways a prophet for the eventual decline of the machine tool industry following the, 1950s. Scott recognized that the industry in Cleveland and the nation was built by men who were better trained in engineering and mechanics than in merchandising and finance, but that its conservatism had protected it financially through lean years in the past. He recommended that in order to keep a wider margin of earnings, smaller machine tool companies must eventually consolidate to raise productivity and diversify in their product base to survive economic downturns. Scott recognized that the machine tool industry would always be adversely affected by a decrease in the demand for raw materials.

Scott, however, could not have foreseen the extent of the decline of the U.S. machine tool industry in recent decades, nor its impact on Cleveland. The city's machine tool companies, both large and small, had been producing at capacity during World War I, and most of the companies that retooled successfully during the postwar era had been able to survive the Depression and take advantage of war production during World War II and the flush American economy in the following years. During the 1950s, Cleveland's machine tool industry remained healthy, although its boom years were over. Larger machine tool manufacturers, including Warner & Swasey and National Acme, were beginning to acquire smaller companies, alleviating the often narrow profit margins of machine tool production by enlarging the volume of their plants. The 1954 census placed machinery production second among the leading industries of Cleveland, both in employment and value of products.

Unfortunately, the concentration of Cleveland's industry on producer's goods, such as machine tools, created instability during recession years. Severe fluctuations in U.S. iron and steel production caused by the international market eventually led to the dismantling of the U.S. STEEL CORP. blast furnaces in Cleveland. Despite a healthy economic outlook, the entire U.S. machine tool industry experienced a debilitating decline during the 1980s, caused mainly by its own dependency on a declining U.S. market, its tardiness in grasping new technological developments in machine tooling, and its reluctance to move toward a world economy and global competition. All of these factors have left Cleveland's machine tool industry a shadow of its former self. Several smaller machine tool companies have survived, usually through diversification, including Bardons & Oliver and Ajax Manufacturing Co., but the largest businesses have closed down or moved from the area. ACME-CLEVELAND CORP., formed through the 1968 merger of two of Cleveland's largest machine tool manufacturers, Cleveland Twist Drill and National Acme, experienced grave losses in the early 1980s and moved operations away from its antiquated Cleveland facilities. Warner & Swasey, successful even during the many economic turns in its 100-year history, was caught in a series of debilitating corporate buyouts and closed its last plant in Solon in 1991., Although a small recovery is possible with the strengthening of the American automotive and steel industry and an increased demand for machine tools in foreign markets, Cleveland will, in all probability, never regain the status it once held as a center for machine tooling in the Midwest.

Rebecca Johnson

The Warner & Swasey Co. Records, WRHS.

The Acme-Cleveland Corp. Records, WRHS.

Frank A. Scott Papers, WRHS.

See also INDUSTRY and specific companies.

Last Modified: 18 Jul 1997 02:35:52 PM

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