February 2010


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Requiem for an American Industry

This article is meant as more a paean to the Automatic Temperature Controls industry than a eulogy.

Thomas Hallett

Dormant factory stackThe pipe trades birthed it, and now the IT industry has buried it. What once was pipe and fit is now plug and play. The proud American factories which cast brass and stamped steel for manufactured products are empty and shuttered; sweat shop labor in Bangalore and Mexico City now furnish solutions. What the creative industrial genius of Mark C. Honeywell, Professor Warren Johnson, and William Penn Powers raised from the cradle sits now in an urn, a collection of ashes displayed only in museums, confined to history.

This article is meant as more a paean to the Automatic Temperature Controls industry than a eulogy; as the ATC business was a tender nursemaid to my career, I write now as her docent.

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Messrs. Honeywell, Johnson, and Powers were to a man, American industrial and business giants; renaissance men all, each was classically schooled and imbued with native curiosity and blessed with a magnificently conductive wire from head to hands. None of these men were what today we would call a graduate engineer. Rather, they grew to maturity in the time following the civil war when central heat was in its infancy, commercial electric power was confined to only a few blocks surrounding a power station, and business success required only inspiration, perspiration, perseverance, and pluck.

JCS ThermostatJust as a farrier must know his animals, these men first knew combustion, boilers, heating distribution, and piping. They cut their teeth on the mechanical systems being developed, installed, and serviced in homes and buildings as our growing nation gave up fireplaces and coal-fired parlor stoves and welcomed the cleaner and more evenly distributed central heat furnished by H. B. Smith, Peerless, Kewanee, and others.

Be it vapor, low pressure steam, or even hot water, these mechanic-inventor-engineers saw an application for controls that hitherto had mostly been manual. They were equally at home in the laboratory/workshop or the boiler room; to have called any of them a specialist would have been an insult to their intelligence and creativity. "Leaking boiler section?, sure, no problem". They'd take a hammer and pin punch and seal the leak.

"Stuck trap?, sure, no problem". Would they tell you "sorry, not my job....you'll need to call a specialist". Not on your life! Yet, when observing an obvious shortcoming with the mechanical delivery of central heat, each man produced a product that took it a step beyond and hastened the acceptance and eager embrace of what we now so take for granted..........the little round thing on the wall that makes us comfy.


Early mod motorThe soon to be captains of ingenuity and enterprise found willing investors eager to build, market, and install the high-tech products born of Johnson's, Honeywell's, and Powers' genius. William Plankinton, heir to the Plankinton Packing Company backed Warren Johnson to form the Milwaukee Electric Manufacturing Company; Plankinton was president and Johnson was vice-president and treasurer. On May 1, 1885, the company was reorganized as the Johnson Electric Service Company, a Wisconsin corporation, in Milwaukee.

Minneapolis-Honeywell Heat Regulator CoIn 1906 Mark C. Honeywell started the Honeywell Heating Specialty Co. in Wabash, IN to manufacture hot water Heating Systems for homes. This was the first use of the name Honeywell as a company. In 1927 Minneapolis Heat Regulator Co. merged with Honeywell Heating Specialists and becomes Minneapolis-Honeywell Heat Regulator Co.

Thus the American plumbing and heating industry birthed the automatic temperature control business. Messrs. Johnson, Honeywell, and Powers along with their investors created the bricks and mortar manufactories to cast brass, machine parts, and assemble thermostats, valves, relays, gear-train actuators, thermowells, and a host of field devices which, once installed, became a system. Branch offices were established, A/E firms given guidance with spec writing, and engineers trained with the application and start-up of these new automatic control devices.

contemporary Professor Johnson had insisted that only trained Johnson mechanics could install his company's devices and his successor, Ellis reinforced this policy. He insisted that the company was to serve not just as a producer of regulation equipment but as a single source for design, installation, and service. In short, Johnson expected his employees to be fully versed with not only his products, but their proper application, installation, and operation. Soon, ASHVE (the predecessor to ASHRAE) embraced and developed sequence standards for the operation of the temperature control system.

Application engineers relied upon their product knowledge training and mentoring from senior pioneers to interpret a spec, select the products, layout and design the panel, field devices, size valves and dampers, and gain A/E (and owner) acceptance. This was still the practice when I joined the business in 1978. I fondly recall the drawer full of cardboard product templates used to layout a panel........put the receiver-controller here, the ratio relay there, and slide in the e/p switches on the side. Yes, it all fits with room to spare for easy servicing.


Engineers also bore the responsibility to design an installed system which turned a profit for the firm. Along with a shop drawing, a project budget was produced. This budget was formulated from the materials cost, panel assembly labor, install labor, start-up, and warranty expectations.

Yesterday's application engineer was truly a well-rounded systems man, well versed in controls product knowledge, mechanical systems operation, and held a fiduciary responsibility to turn a profit for his employer. From drawing board to gleeful customer acceptance, he was the steward of both his employer's and customer's expectations. He used a steam calorimeter with the the same ease as his pencil on vellum.

I know this as I was mentored by such a man. "Coolie" Richardson had been with the Barber-Colman Company for over 40 years when I was hired to replace him. Rich with experience, he still kept up youthful exuberance and welcomed me to his drawing board. No Luddite he, I was amazed to see he used a program written in BASIC to size valves.........yet he still kept his drawer of cardboard templates for panel layout. To this day, I hope still to fill his shoes.


Temperature Control Company Board MeetingThe inheritors of the fine, old staid firms of the Johnson Service Company, the Minneapolis-Honeywell Heat Regulator Company, and the Powers Regulator Company preside now over firms that are controls manufacturers in name only. Car seats, aviation/avionics, or medical instruments/scanners are the true bread and butter for these once proud designers, manufacturers, and installers of automatic temperature control products and systems.

Sure, they've slick websites touting in "corporatese" how they furnish solutions, but try calling a branch office to buy a thermostat.......if you get a return call, it will likely be the day after tomorrow! From the top on down, these firms are populated with sycophants and wannabe's. Take no risk, show no initiative, ingratiate yourself with the corporate leadership, and you'll land a cushy spot at headquarters.

Don't dare insist on top talent, just take what's been blessed from the HR oracles. Don't dare bid a job without first the corporate lawyers' exhaustive vetting of your proposal. Don't dare challenge the vanguard of marketing strategy for setting up jobbers to compete with the branch.

In short, behave just like a D.C. bureaucrat.........after all, your firm is nothing short of the federal government in microcosm.

Now let's look at what sort of technical talent these corporate chevalier servants have cultivated:

Sling Psychrometer"Commissioning Technicians" they are now called. Once there were "techs".......guys who would troubleshoot a vacuum tube driven mod motor in the morning, replace a pump-down solenoid after lunch, and write machine language code for a Motorola 6800 in the afternoon.

Skilled with both a TTL/CMOS logic probe and a sling psychrometer, these techs were not only skilled professionals, but possessed that intuitive wire from head to hands with which the giants were blessed..

Knowing how to read a logic diagram, read and utilize a psychometric chart, and measure superheat across a coil were all in a days work. Well before today's crop of mouse clicking "programmers", techs of old could calculate the volume of a timing tank on a P+I receiver controller to tune their loop. Yes, proportional plus integral controls existed long before DDC systems came on the scene.

Oftentimes, yesterday's tech found himself on a remote campus or military installation with an entire building down......no communicado! The building's loop remote or data gathering panel was not reporting to the central station. The branch office was 300 miles away, and the needed spare circuit board was not at hand. What was readily at hand were the schematics, logic probe, and the skill to fully use both. "Ah-ha", said the tech, "your transmission line interface board has a blown opto-coupler", no problem to run to the nearby Radio-Shack and pick up a 4N26 and replace the dead chip. THAT is customer service of which Professor Johnson would be proud.


Compound Pressure GaugeThat today's "commissioning technician" cannot understand a 3-way light switch circuit in your dining room is a direct result of the feckless leadership and lack of vision afflicting management in today's control business. Ask a tech today what a bourdon tube is and he'll give you the same deer-in-the-headlights look you'd get from the branch manager when posed with the same question.

For the owner whose AHU failed to start leaving a classroom at 50 for the students, don't expect your tech will get up from the computer, take his wiggy, and go to the fan room. No, "the system sent the command, I don't know why the AHU failed to start". The owner must now call another specialist just to tell him the fan starter has a bad overload.

Why the acceptance of mediocrity?

It comes from the top. When the individuals running these firms are more interested in this quarter's income statement than the investment of bricks, mortar, and talent that it takes to be the best in the business, all you'll get is a click of the mouse and a shrug.

When slick Power-Point presentations, buzzwords, and "corporatese" replace American Know-How, all you may expect are "solutions".

When solid technical talent, deep product knowledge, and experienced leadership such as what Professor Johnson insisted upon come a calling, you may expect RESULTS.


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