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W. F. & John Barnes Company

Modified on 2012/04/17 09:25 by Bob Holcombe Categorized as History, Manufacturer Information
Used with permission from the Rockford Register-Republic, Originally published August 23, 1955.

The story of the beginnings and the progress of the W. F. and John Barnes Company can be told best by dividing the growth into periods:

1 - The Early Beginnings: 1868-1914

Like so many other stories of progressive American institutions, the story of the W. F. and John Barnes Company begins with the desire of a young and ingenious man to improve his lot in life.

Shortly after the close of the Civil War, young John Barnes was living in central New York state. He decided that the opportunities of that era lay farther west. Accordingly, he invested his savings in a threshing machine and started working his way westward from farm to farm. When he reached Rockford, John Barnes like the place and settled down. He had previously had experience as a model maker and found employment in that capacity with Emerson Talcott and Company, manufacturers of harvesting machinery.

The tediousness of carving wooden models by hand, coupled with the ingenuity of the man, led to the first step typical of many in the history of the W. F. and John Barnes Company. There being no power tools available suitable for this work, Barnes met the situation by developing foot-power woodworking equipment to meet his needs. The speeding of production by foot-power attracted interest in the new machine and John Barnes soon realized that his woodworking tools found readier sale than his models. In 1868 he decided to devote full time to these tools and their manufacture.

With the growth of the business, John's two brothers, W. F. and B. Frank, came out from the east to join the new enterprise. Their first plant was housed in a small rented shop conveniently located in the water-power district. Then a move was made to the corner of Wyman and State Streets where the company of W. F. AND JOHN BARNES was formed in 1872. Twelve years later the organization moved across the river to the site it occupies today; the company was incorporated, some of the present buildings were built.

Meanwhile, John's original invention, the foot-powered scroll saw, had found favor in the building industry which employed for turning out intricate ornaments for cornices, ornate balustrades for stairways, and other rococo decorations. It must be remembered that in those days electric and gas power were not in practical use; you had to depend on steam, water or foot-power.

While increasing production of their scroll saw, the Barnes brothers recognized the need in their own shop for other power tools - a circular saw, a foot-power wood lathe, a foot-power former and mortiser. These they proceeded to develop. And here again, machines designed to answer their own requirements were discovered to have a wide application, and so these new tools were added to the gradually expanding Barnes line for sale to other manufacturers.

In the early 1880s - or around the time when the present Barnes plant was started - the Barnes brothers discovered that they required some metal-working machinery. They developed an open-frame single-spindle drill press, a horizontal radial drill, and an adjustable screw press. These were intended for their own factory use, but before long the tools were being sold to customers.

Ample evidence that many other manufacturers needed these same machines is seen in the fact that over a period of years more than 70,000 drill presses were furnished to various industries. Among the early customers was Henry Ford, who ordered a Barnes drill press in 1881 for his experimental shop. When he had reconstructed his original shop at Dearborn, he asked the Barnes company to supply one of these old original machines.

2 - The Single Spindle Drill Press era: 1884-1924

When the World's Fair of 1892 was being heavily advertised, the Barnes brothers decided to make a showing at the event. Included in their display were several sizes of drill presses, some equipped with the first power feeds, and a new style grinder with its own water chamber and a float to force the water to the grinding surface. The crowds were particularly interested in these new designs and they constituted substantial items of business during the next several years.

By 1908, the Barnes brothers had consolidated many of their new ideas into a single machine for use in their own shop - a machine which milled, drilled, tapped and faced, much like a special production machine of today. To the best of the company's present knowledge, this creation was among the very first multiple operation machines for interchangeable parts in the world. This machine was certainly one of the early progenitors of the high production machines now so widely used in the automotive, home appliances, agriculture equipment, and other such industries.

During this period, the older men were being aided in the active management of the company by Aubrey T. Barnes, son of John, and by Joe Barnes, W. F.'s son. Upon the death of Joe Barnes in 1907, John S. Barnes, Aubrey's younger brother became shop superintendent. Just before this time, "B. Frank" left his brothers to branch out for himself ... to start what was later to be known as the Rockford Drilling Machine Co. Still later he started the Barnes Drill Company.

The two decades after the turn of the century constituted an active period in the history of the company. The growing young automobile and farm-implement industries, in particular, were constantly expanding their facilities and purchasing more and more machinery. During the first World War the Barnes organization built tremendous numbers of its line of machinery. Carloads were shipped every day to all parts of the world and production kept at a high level during the war. The end of the war left the company with huge inventories and no new orders. The aftermath of war with its serious adjustment spelled dark days during the next few years.

3 - The advent of the Special Machinery Line and the depression years: 1925-1939

John S. Barnes, son of the founder, and president of the company, and Ralph Billingham, (now a vice president) decided to rejuvenate the business by bringing out a complete new line of special machines for special purposes, particularly for the fast growing automotive industry. This was the beginning of another era in Barnes history in which the company offered engineering services in addition to the building of machines. This new phase of activity has been the basis for the continued expansion of the company and its services up to the present.

As the company was getting started in the special machine business, other concerns were improving the materials used in cutting tools. The new machines were designed to incorporate and utilize the advantages of the new cutting materials. Coincident with the development of new cutting tools, the idea of actuating cutting feeds by means of hydraulic pressure was also being developed. The Barnes company engineers kept pace with these various lines of progress and were among the first to apply hydraulic feeds to the actuation of special machine tools. The Barnes organization took a leading hand in the development of hydraulic actuating equipment.

A subsidiary company, The John S. Barnes Corp., was organized in 1929, to promote the inventions of Mr. Ernest J. Svenson - now the president of John S. Barnes Corp. Since that date the company has furnished its own unique and highly efficient hydraulic equipment.

The untimely death of Mr. John S. Barnes in 1933 was a severe blow to the organization. He had conceived a new plan and had personally carried the burden of the conversion of the business from a standard line of machine tools to an engineering service and manufacturer of special machinery. Mr. William W. Barton succeeded Mr. Barnes as president. Under his direction, the present officers consisting of K. L. Finkenstaedt as executive vice president, Ralph Billingham as vice president in charge of sales and engineering, and F. O. W. Bergquist as secretary-treasurer, have carried on the plans of Mr. Barnes, and the subsequent progress of the company has been along the lines that he established.

These were the depression years, and the efforts of everyone were concentrated on keeping the company alive. In 1933 Barnes made the first progress-through machine of the automatic type. This was built for the International Harvester company. In 1934 the company received an order from the Ford Motor Company that might very well be considered one of the first automatic progress-through or transfer type machines that are so prevalent today. The machine was for diamond-boring cylinders in the Ford motor block to extremely close tolerances. "As I look back on that Ford order, I believe that it probably meant more to the progress and development of this company's new line of machinery than any other single step in the period of depression," Barton states, adding: "We were part of a new advance in automobile design and in the machine tool application to that work." In 1939 there arose another instance in which the building of a machine for the company's own use led to expansion of the business. At about that time a special honing machine was devised for use in honing the hydraulic cylinders used in the building of machine tools. This machine aroused the interest of the airplane industry and a large number of orders were placed for them. This increase of business brought about the first major plant expansion.

4 - Defense Production and the 2nd World War: 1940-1945

The build-up of defense production in 1940 swelled the orders for the machine to assist in the manufacture of guns and ammunition so that several more plant enlargements were necessary in quick succession. Special machines remained the product, but a product working on the materials of war.

In addition to the manufacture of machine tools for the production of ammunition components, the Barnes company undertook other special assignments for the war effort. Included was the manufacture of a unique and highly precise type of machinery for the manufacture of precision optical components used in the gun sights and other optical devices. Companion to this was the establishment of a chemical division which produced a special chemical substance used in conjunction with the optical polishing machines for producing the high quality optical surfaces.

In 1940 Barnes' engineers conceived a method of manufacturing ammunition components using special machinery integrated with a system of conveyors and material-handling devices. This was presented to the War Department and resulted in a contract to design a complete plant for this purpose. The building was built on North Main road and produced armor piercing projectiles throughout the period of World War II. As the war progressed, the ammunition plant was also expanded for the manufacture of 155 mm artillery projectiles and these were also being manufactured as the war closed. Further expansion of the ammunition plant to produce ammunition components was well along when interrupted by the close of the war in 1945. In many ways this plant is the forerunner of the automatic factory that we hear so much about today.

Electrical controls - The diversification of the company's endeavors led to further development of electrical controls and brought about the decision not only to design the circuits, but also to manufacture the electrical controls. This section served to further integrate the activities of the company in combining mechanical design and manufacture with electrical design and manufacture with hydraulic design and manufacture (through the subsidiary company, John S. Barnes Corporation.)

Design and Manufacture of Metal Cutting Tools - With the increasing demands of the 2nd world war, the problem of supplying cutting tools became critical, and the company then made the decision to establish its own cutting tool division - similarly to the action in creating the John S. Barnes Corporation to supply hydraulics. This tool division was organized under the corporate name of Metal Cutting Tools, Inc., with Mr. W. Kyle Young as general manager (now president). Again as in the case of the John S. Barnes Corporation, facilities for this new venture were provided within the confines of the parent plant at 301 South Water Street. This company has continued to grow and serves not only the parent company, but many other users of cutting tools.

Growth of Personnel Policies - The development of all of these activities led to increases not only in engineering facilities and in planning equipment facilities, but also to increased personnel. Because of the nature of the business where, in a sense, every job is different there is no repetitive production, great emphasis has been placed in providing facilities that from a standpoint of cleanliness, light, air, space, and good equipment, makes Barnes a good place to work. It is interesting to note that as early as 1941 the company instituted a complete Group Insurance plan embodying hospital, x-ray and surgical services, both for the individual and the dependents; that a profit sharing trust was set up by which members of the company participate by formula in the earnings of the company, the only requirement for participation being five years of service with the company; that a wage dividend policy was established, also under an established formula, which provides additional compensation. In later years these policies have been maintained and expanded to meet today's conditions, and great effort is placed on the system of communication so that everyone can and should feel that he is an essential part of the team.

5 - Requirements of an expanding economy and diversification: from 1946 to 1955

After the war, the company resumed its manufacture of special machine tools for the automotive and other high production industries. The postwar period has seen a tremendous development in the design of these machines as the manufacture of all sorts of things for modern living has made unprecedented progress.

This demand brought further requirements for floor space and machinery. In 1952 the company purchased the building on South Madison Street that had been part of the Rockford Central High School and the old Rockford Watch factory. By remodeling and by building new additions, the company has expanded its facilities to approximately half a million square feet.

Additionally, in the postwar period, the Barnes company has used the long experience of its engineers to provide equipment for industries where machine tools in the strict sense are not used. One industry which now widely uses Barnes machine is the food canning industry. The Barnes engineers have devised an extensive line of special equipment for handling cans and glass jars in canning plants. It has also been active in the promotion of a new method of canning which permits great improvement in the quality of the product. For example, it is possible with this "aseptic canning process" to supply canned fresh milk without a trace of a cooked flavor.

The Barnes company is among the leaders in the new movement in manufacturing known as "Automation" which means the use of automatic and special mechanical devices to increase the productivity of the workers in industry. Barnes is able to contribute to this progress of automation both because of the large accumulation of mechanical skill and the development of its electrical control division. The use of electrical controls has been a significant part of the improvement of special machine tools and is a vital part of the program of Automation.

Another field which has occupied the attention of the Barnes engineers in the postwar period has been the exploration of atomic energy. The company has built a number of devices to meet the highly special requirements of atomic energy installations and continues to be active in this field. The Barnes contributions to atomic energy progress have been both in the military aspects of the program and in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Among its atomic energy activities the Barnes company has been a leader in the manufacture of Teletherapy equipment which is used in the medical application of rays from radioactive cobalt in the treatment of cancer.

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