Made in Milwaukee

The digital age (almost) invented in Riverwest

This factory, the former home of Globe-Union, at 900 E. Keefe Ave., was once the employer of electronics genus Jack Kilby, and may even have started him on a path that eventually changed the world. Carl A. Swanson photo

The device upon which you are reading this, the network you used to access it, along with every modern computer, smartphone, GPS device, in fact, the entire digital age was born in 1958 when Jack Kilby, an electronics engineer with Texas Instruments, designed the first integrated circuit built on a piece of semiconductor material. As Thomas Fehring, author of the new book, The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the engineers who created them, explains, this world-changing invention may have its roots in a company located in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. 

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The man who dreamed of locks

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This Master Lock no. 3 padlock is made from multiple steel plates stacked and riveted together under enormous pressure, just as Harry Soref designed in 1921. Carl A. Swanson photo

Harry Soref, the founder, general manager, and chief designer of The Master Lock Company, was a most unlikely industrial tycoon. Small, slight, and soft-spoken, he preferred working in an unadorned cubbyhole of an office in the huge factory he built. His working day started at 5 a.m. and often continued until 9 or 10 at night, six days a week.

“There is no Sunday, no Monday, no Tuesday for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1940. “The days are too short and nights too long.”

His factory employed more than 600 people but Soref refused to install time clocks or set production quotas. One could spot newly hired employees when they referred to the company’s founder as “Mr. Soref.” The workers who had been there awhile called the boss by his first name.

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Deaf workers aided war effort

Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

A supervisor communicates with a deaf ammunition inspector at the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, a massive but short-lived World War II factory manufacturing .50-calibre machine gun cartridges. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the federal government contracted with the United States Rubber Co. to build and operate the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, producing .50-calibre machine gun ammunition.

U.S. Rubber leased a massive factory, which formerly housed the failed Eline Candy Co. operation on North Port Washington Road, and set about converting it to ammunition production. Time was of the essence and cost was no object.

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