Generally speaking I stop this time of year and commemorate an event of which you, the reader of this blog, are the beneficiary (?). On 1 July 1997 I uploaded the pages of my first website, called then The Wave Equation Page for Piling and now vulcanhammer.net. I duly editorialised the tenth anniversary of that here. Two months later the predecessor of this site was launched and I was off in what was then called cyberspace.
But this time I want to put that event together with another holiday, namely the Fourth of July. It’s the time of year when we celebrate all things American. From time to time I’ve mentioned that fact that my family was involved in one business–the Vulcan Iron Works–for 144 years. Since that still covers most of the history of this Republic, I think it’s fair to say that this alone makes it an interesting “American Story”.
Since most people outside of the heavy construction industry are unfamiliar with Vulcan equipment, some history is in order. The Vulcan Foundry was founded in Chicago by my great-great-grandfather, Henry Warrington, in 1852, the same year Marshall Fields was started. He kept it up for only 12 years, selling it to other Chicago businessmen during the Civil War. While they had it Vulcan produced its first steam pile driver, a technology first developed in the UK a few years earlier.
Neither of the concerns/people who operated the business did well with it, so in 1881 Henry’s three sons George, William and James bought the company. By the end of the decade they had improved the design of the pile driving equipment to the point where they launched the “Warrington-Vulcan” line of pile drivers.
That improvement was the key to the company’s success for the next century. A good example of that is shown at the left: a hammer produced in 1905 still operating in 2008 (and that’s not the only one like it)! Even the History Channel was interested in a product with such a rugged application and simultaneous longevity.
Vulcan and its signature product line (which became pretty much its only product line by World War II) were there for most of the last century’s great construction projects (like the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System). It was also there for its two great destruction projects: the two World Wars, where the company’s projects helped to build what the U.S. military needed to win them, people (including the owning family members) to fight and support at home to support all of it.
Below: a war bond billboard in Chicago during World War II.
Major changes were afoot for both the company and the country during the 1960’s and 1970’s. On the one hand, marine contractors took Vulcan’s product offshore for conventional oil platform installation, which pushed Vulcan’s (and everyone else’s) capabilities to the limit in the single greatest adventure the company ever undertook. That came as Vulcan, having been in Chicago for 108 years and celebrated its centennial there, moved the operation to Chattanooga, TN.
But this time in American history was also a challenge for Vulcan. The Luddite 1960’s trashed manufacturing and those who engaged in it. The environmental movement set back all of Vulcan’s markets by setting back construction of both infrastructure onshore and oil exploration offshore. And the growth of regulation had its impact on small business, although not so much with Vulcan as with many others.
By the 1980’s there was need for major restructuring of Vulcan and its business. By that time, however, many of Vulcan’s “stakeholders”: trade union, distribution network, and others–were resistant to such changes. To accumulate many stakeholders with veto power is an occupational hazard of institutions of long life and apparent success, something that bears on our current situation as a nation. Vulcan’s attempt to break out in the early 1990’s had initial success but suffered from overextension, and in 1996 our family divested itself of the company.
Much of the debate in this country today is about what is needful for success, and by extension who is needful to carry out that success. Companies such as Vulcan are pointed to as a “traditional” example of American success, but Vulcan’s story is, in many ways, atypical, especially when compared to what urban legends say today.
To begin with, the ideal of a family business, lovingly passed down from generation to generation, is just that. One big reason Vulcan passed through five generations of my family was the desultory nature of the succession. The first generation sold it after only a short time; it was left to the second to buy it back and set it on its way. Of the three brothers, one was more interested in yachts on Lake Michigan and later government service, and was effectively out of Vulcan by the turn of the last century. Another suffered from poor health and lived in Hawaii and Los Angeles, coming back to Chicago occasionally. The eldest was the most diligent but died in the early 1920’s. But only the brother than went to Washington had a child, who, in the midst of an aviation career, found himself at the helm of a business in Illinois. He eventually moved back, but found being Commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club at least as interesting as the iron works.
Another American myth is the Horatio Alger story, underpinned by the fact that many of these upwardly mobile types came from rural poverty. The Warringtons were urbanite businesspeople from the day Henry stepped off the boat from England; he did the same thing in Chicago he did in Manchester, England, albeit with a more booming market and more freedom to pursue other things. Technically educated club denizens from generation to generation, the family was out of touch with much of what Americans associated with success. This came home to roost with Vulcan’s move to Chattanooga. Tennessee was and is certainly a better business climate than the “Chicago Way” but in a region where rural poverty defines the culture the result was an experience that was decidedly mixed.
One place where our family was right in the mainstream of current conservative thought was its belief in our free enterprise system. My grandfather’s speech at our centennial in 1952 is a concise summary of that belief (and a mention of its opposition). But Vulcan was atypical in that much of its output ended up either being sold to the government (civilian and military) or used on public works projects. Vulcan’s attitude to the government was more nuanced that we have now: the government can and certainly should do its part to build up the infrastructure, but it was and is dangerous for same government to have either unfettered control or complete provision for such building.
Finally Vulcan, small as it was, did a great deal of international business in an era when American companies were not strong outside of the home market. Although hammers were exported from the early years of their manufacture, from the 1960’s onward it was routine for Vulcan to export a third of its output, in an era when the country consistently ran balance of trade deficits. That led to expeditions such as our sales to the Chinese in the early 1980’s, and gave our business profile an exotic cast.
Today the Vulcan product line, which has outlived the company (and many others) is serviced by Pile Hammer Equipment, for whom I continue to do design work. Planned obsolescence was never in our game plan then or now, which is another of Vulcan’s anomalies.
People wonder why I went to all the trouble putting together the website of my family business’ history. There’s a good business reason for it, and it has helped to keep the product line alive, but one thing I wanted to do is to tell a success story that wouldn’t get told otherwise, and perhaps inspire someone else to do something like it. The thing that bothers me is this: I have no doubt that this inspiration will take place and be acted upon. But that leaves the obvious question: will it happen here? Will we continue to encourage people to take risks and be successful? Or will we, obsessed with creating a safe and perfect environment for ourselves and especially for those who rule us, stifle such innovation and allow our economy–and ultimately our country–to deteriorate?
That’s a question that we need to be asking ourselves as Americans as we face yet another Fourth of July.