Sunday, April 12, 2015
Wheel Man: Robert Keating And Middletown's Extraordinary Factory
It happened here!! Lost to history, forgotten and ignored up to now. Finally, a vital piece of Middletown Connecticut history is bought back for all to share and enjoy.
A detailed, factual biography of the man, his ground breaking factory “The Keating Wheel Company” on Johnson Street in Middletown Ct, and his contributions and innovations in the early years of modern wheeled transportation in the USA.
A must read for those interested in early Middletown, bicycle, motorcycle, automobile, and transportation history.
The book is available at this time online. A simple Google search of the title will easily find it.
A brief overview:
Robert M. Keating originally started the Keating Wheel Company in Westfield, Massachusetts on September 10,1890 after working as the superintendent at the Warwick Cycle Company in Springfield and before that with the Overman Wheel Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The first Keating Wheel Company factory was a leased space in an existing factory building formerly used by the Westfield Whip Company located on Elm Street in Westfield. The factory employed ten men and by the spring of 1891 the Keating Wheel Company turned out the first seventy-five Keating bicycles, called “The Superior.”
On July 2, 1891 the company was reorganized with a new board of directors and in January 1892, the Keating Wheel Company moved its operations into a new factory located at 30 Dwight Street in Holyoke, MA. By 1892 the company had 300 employees. Over the next five years the company produced some of the lightest, strongest and fastest bicycles made in the United States, along with introducing the innovative and unique Keating curved center brace design, celebrated by the tag line, “See That Curve” on all its advertising.
By 1895 the bicycle boom in America was in peak form. It is difficult today to fully appreciate the impact the bicycle had on industry and society during the Gay ‘90s. The bicycle was literally “the next big thing” in the 1890s. At the time, the two-wheeled machine spawned the same level of technological awe in the minds of consumers as the television, desktop computer and smart phone did during their inaugurations; along with the same obsessive drive to own one. R.M. Keating and his Wheel Company were at the forefront of this new transportation revolution and the success of his bicycle lines required that the company expand. For that, he needed a new plant. When word got out that the Keating was looking to move, cities and towns from far and wide began to court the company with vigor.
Following a fury of propositions, it was Middletown, CT that made the most attractive offer and on the evening of May 23, 1896, an official agreement to relocate the Keating Wheel Company to Middletown was signed. As part of the deal it was agreed that a massive two-story, 1000-foot long factory would be constructed on two parcels of land purchased by the company on “the old race course near the Berlin branch road” which would later become Johnson Street. On the last day of 1896, the new factory suddenly and dramatically came to life. On that wintery New Year’s Eve, smoke billowed out of the factory’s 135-foot chimney for the first time. A new board of directors was formed to oversee the company’s success with Middletown’s most famous resident, ex-governor Owen Vincent Coffin, in the chairman’s seat.
When Keating made the decision to relocate to Middletown he was also determined to build a new factory like no other. The two floors of the new factory were designed as great, open halls, supported by rows of pine pillars set 10 feet apart, allowing more efficient and better- integrated movement of stock and finished material between the various production operations arrayed along each floor. With only two stories the ceilings could be raised higher than usual, in turn allowing the window frames to be made larger, which allowed additional light and ventilation into the factory. But there was another innovation built into the design of the new Keating factory that was historically significant.
Unlike traditional 19th century factories and mills that operated using waterwheels, flumes or steam, Keating looked to one of the cutting-edge tech stars of the day, Thomas Alva Edison, for a brand new source of power – electricity. The factory in Middletown was the first manufacturing plant in the country designed expressly for the use of electric power; power that would be generated on site in its own electric power plant using motors and generators designed by Edison’s new General Electric Company. Electric power allowed Keating to organize his bicycle production more efficiently. He had six extensions constructed off the factory’s core structure to house specialized operations that would allow for what would later become known as assembly-line production. But the Keating factory’s innovations were not confined to the production of bicycles. As early as 1896 Keating already had other things in mind.
In 1898 the Keating Wheel Company began manufacturing motor carriages, powered by electric batteries, for use as delivery vehicles. The following year the company changed its name to the Keating Wheel and Automobile Company and its first production model motorized delivery wagon was presented to the public on November 10, 1899. The giant Siegel-Cooper department store in New York City made the first purchase. Over the next several years some of the finest bicycles ever to be manufactured in the United States were rolled out of the factory’s loading docks and shipped worldwide. By the turn of the century, the Middletown factory was also producing both electric and gasoline powered vehicles well before Detroit took the stage. Keating reportedly had five vehicles represented in Middletown’s 250th birthday parade held in October 1900.
In June and July of 1900, Keating filed a series of patents for a motorized bicycle and by November the first Keating motor bicycle was tested on the company grounds using Keating’s patented designs – patents that would become the industry standard for motorcycle production in America. In 1901, Oscar Hedstrom, under contract with the Hendee Manufacturing Company, leased space at the largely abandoned Worcester Bicycle Manufacturing Company, also in Middletown, to develop a motor bicycle of his own. The Keating Wheel Company released their motor bicycle onto the market in March of 1901. Hedstrom completed his prototype motor bicycle, which would become the iconic Indian “Motorcycle,” at the end of May. Middletown was truly America’s “Motorcycle City” at the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, the Keating Wheel and Automobile Company ran into serious financial difficulties and went into receivership just as the Keating motor bicycle was put on the market. On June 15, 1901, the Keating factory was sold to the Eisenhuth Horseless vehicle Company. Over the next year they continued to build and sell the Keating motor bicycle until it was abandoned to make way for production of the Eisenhuth automobile (which was limited). Keating continued to develop engines for motor bicycles and marine use in Middletown under the name Keating Motor Company until going into bankruptcy in August of 1906. The Eisenhuth Horseless vehicle Company went bankrupt five months later.
On August 26, 1914, Keating sued the Hendee Manufacturing Company for patent infringement in their design of the Indian Motocycle, traditionally considered the first American motorcycle. On October 30, 1917, Keating sued the Harley-Davidson Motor Company for patent infringement. Keating won both suits. The Keating motor bicycle that was running around the Middletown factory in November of 1900 is the first original, commercially marketed motorcycle (that is, with the motor incorporated within the frame; not simply attached to) in the United States.
Over the course of his lifetime Keating filed 50 patents, including the patent for the rubber home plate used in baseball.