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History's Headlines: Man of Steel

When Bethlehem Steel's Charles Schwab died in 1939 he was hailed in the press as the company’s founder. But, in fact, although he played a major role in the 20th century development of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Schwab was “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Since the 1860s there had been a thriving metals industry along the banks of the Lehigh. Known for most of its existence as Bethlehem Iron, it already had a history, one that included providing railroad rails for the first trans-continental railroad, establishing one of the earliest major steel making facilities in America and creating the ships that were the basis for the modern U.S. Navy. Among those founders of Bethlehem Iron was a man named John Fritz. A largely self-taught mechanical genius, Fritz came of age when figures like Samuel Morse were creating the telegraph and the Roeblings were building that bridge in Brooklyn. He lived to see Thomas Alva Edison, later a close friend, harness the miracle of electricity that transformed a nation and a world.

Born on a farm in Chester County in 1822, Fritz was out in the field working beside his father, planting potatoes at 10 years old. But farming, although he was good at it, was not the elder Fritz’s passion. He had been trained as a millwright and mechanic and would at times be called on to repair machinery at a nearby cotton mill. As the oldest boy in the family of 12, 6 boys and 6 girls, John Fritz, carrying a tool box behind his father, soon became fascinated by the machinery he worked on. “To see a machine, some 30 feet long or more in length, with its many spindles, spinning yarn, one half of the machine fixed and the other moving back and forth through a space of some eight feet or more was to me most marvelous,” he wrote many years later in his autobiography.

At the age of 16 Fritz became an apprentice to a blacksmith and mechanic, learning how to work with metals and spending his free time observing machinery in action. After that he went out to find a job. Unfortunately, the year was 1844. Business was slow, the economy was still recovering from the Panic of 1837 and the banking collapse that followed. After being turned down by the Norristown iron mill of Moore and Hoven, one of many rejections Fritz encountered, he gave the mill and its new machinery one last look before leaving. Then Fritz saw mill owner James Moore walking toward him.  Convinced he was about to throw him out, he started to leave. Before Fritz could exit Moore stopped him. “Young man, I like thy looks,” said Moore, using the plain speech of the Quakers, who Fritz had grown up around, liked and respected. “Will thee remain here until Monday?” Fritz said he would.

Arriving early that morning Moore introduced Fritz to mill General Manager John Griffen. He asked Fritz some questions to which he responded to Griffen’s satisfaction. With that Fritz was given a laborer’s job to see how he would work out. Fritz’s job was heavy work. But every chance he had he got to know things. The iron puddlers, mostly Welshmen and Englishmen, regarded their trade as a brotherhood. But they saw Fritz’s interest and taught him its secrets. After seven years at Moore and Hoven, Fritz worked at iron mills across the state before settling in 1857 at the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown. He called the primitive industrial community the “most unattractive place I have ever been in.” The only entertainment came from the cows, pigs, and hogs that roamed the streets freely. “The dogs would get after the pigs,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “they would squeal, the cows would bawl, the dogs would bark and fight…I should have been amused if I had not been there to stay.”

But Cambria was also the place where Fritz achieved his first technological breakthrough. The company had built its reputation on its iron railroad rails. Unfortunately, like all rail makers, there were problems keeping the rails from becoming too brittle as they went through the rollers. It was clear to Fritz what was happening. As rails were carried by hand, by strong men using tongs, they cooled. By the time they were placed in the second set of rails they broke apart. By adding a third roller, Fritz figured the process would be more continuous, so the rail did not cool as fast. Almost everyone was skeptical at Cambria. But on July 29, 1857 the so-called three high rail mill operated and the rail went through without a flaw. “You can judge what my feelings were as I looked upon that perfect and first rail ever made on a three-high rail mill,” Fritz wrote.

Fritz would continue to transform Cambria so that by 1860 it operated at a peak of efficiency. But, Fritz decided, it was time to move on. On May 1, 1860, Fritz got a letter from Robert Sayre, right hand man to Lehigh Valley Railroad magnate Asa Packer. The letter came after two trips by Sayre to Johnstown to “woo” Fritz to Bethlehem. In his letter Sayre promised it would be an up to date mill and told Fritz is would “establish your reputation in a section of the country that is destined, in my opinion, the most populous and wealthy in this or any other state.”  He also offered Fritz $5000 a year, a huge amount of money for the time (Abraham Lincoln, then a very successful railroad attorney, was offered $10,000 in 1860 to become president of the New York Central Railroad, but he turned it down to become another kind of president), a seat on the board of directors and a large block of capital stock.

Fritz moved to Bethlehem in 1860 but that year was tinged with sorrow when his only child, 7 year old Gertrude, died.  After many years of wandering Fritz had found a home and a job that suited him perfectly. He now had the time to think and experiment and keep up with what was going on in the rest of the steel industry. His next big challenge came in the late 1860s when the British created the Bessemer steel process. The rest of the iron industry thought steel rails were a fad that would fade. But Fritz realized that longer lasting steel rails that could be made in such large quantities would drive the iron rail industry to the wall. Working with Sayre, Fritz began to try to duplicate the Bessemer process in America.

In 1869/70 he traveled to Europe on the new Cunard liner S.S. Russia to inspect steel making there. With him was Elisha Packer Wilbur, nephew and business associate to Asa Packer, and Packer’s sons Robert and Harry. They split up in Liverpool, Fritz touring English steel makers, Elisha and the boys heading on to Paris. On catching up with them in the French capital, Fritz found Elisha exhausted from trying to keep Robert and Harry from tasting the fleshpots of Napoleon III’s naughty Paris. Fritz records in his diary having to “rescue” them from the ribald antics of the notorious Art Student’s Ball.

Fritz also used the opportunity to visit French steelmakers at Le Creusot. But he was kept out of those in Prussia where Krupp was busy making cannon for the coming war that would humble the French Empire.

Eventually Fritz would succeed in transferring the Bessemer steel process in Bethlehem. In 1873 the collapse of the railroad building boom forced most Lehigh Valley rail makers to close. When it was over nobody wanted iron rails when they could get steel rails from Bethlehem. One by one the iron makers folded, never to return.

The last phase of Fritz’s life found him using his knowledge to aid in the creation of a modern U.S. Navy. By the 1880s the fleet had gone from being the largest in the world at the end of the Civil War to a place behind several small South American nations. At  Bethlehem Fritz managed to create production facilities for naval canon and armor plate that found the government of the U.S. and governments from around the world coming to its door. Which was a big reason that attracted Schwab to take it over in 1904.

Fritz could have been a rich man, but he lived frugally and simply. His major contribution was Lehigh University’s Fritz Engineering Laboratory in 1900 which he designed himself. Over the last years of his life Fritz was honored by organizations from around the world. He died in his sleep at the age of 91 on February 13, 1913, a Pennsylvania German farm boy who never lost his joy in creating and watching machines work.

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