Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wheel Man Part III. A Factory Like No Other

119 years ago this May, the City of Middletown and the Keating Wheel Company, then of Holyoke, Massachusetts, signed an agreement to relocate the company to Middletown and build a new factory to produce Keating Wheels.  Over the years to follow Keating would also manufacture some of the earliest motorcycles and automobiles, in a factory run totally by electricity – the first “modern” manufacturing facility in the country.  Following is the third excerpt from the new book Wheel Man: Robert M. Keating, Pioneer of Bicycles, Motorcycles and Automobiles, written by R.K. Keating. 

Previous Excerpts
Wheel Man, Part I: Keating is COMING!
Wheel Man, Part II: The Old Race Course By The Berlin Branch.


The design and functionality of the Keating Wheel Company factory in Middletown was the product of the same creative thinking that went into Keating’s inventions and patents. Keating’s innovative production ideas along with Casper Ranger’s extensive expertise in factory construction seamlessly coalesced in the building of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility designed for the expressed purpose of manufacturing not just high-grade bicycles but motor vehicles; a strategy that would position the company competitively into the next century. Keating had been planning the design of the new factory for two years, using his experiences in Westfield, Holyoke and no doubt his time at Overman and Warwick, and the result was “one of the most complete and modern cycle factories in the world.”

It is the realization of a pet ambition, which has been Mr. Keating’s since he began his business career, to design personally and lay out a manufacturing plant with modern appliances of convenience.

The first design innovation was the use of a more linear, horizontal layout as opposed to the traditional vertical, mill-style factory structure.  The Holyoke factory was four stories high and 230 feet long as compared to the two story, 1,000 foot long building in Middletown.  The two floors of the new factory were each a great, open hall, supported by rows of pine pillars set ten feet apart, allowing more efficient and better integrated movement of stock and finished material between the various production operations arrayed along each floor.  In addition, with only two stories, the ceilings were raised higher than usual, allowing the window frames to be made larger, which in turn allowed additional light and ventilation into the factory. Keating was no longer content working within the confines of the obdurate, vertical arrangements of early 19th century manufacturing, as was the case with the Whitcomb building, and with Ranger’s assistance, took pains to construct something better. But Keating’s biggest design innovation was adapting and incorporating the cutting-edge work of Thomas Alva Edison and his General Electric Company to modern production methods and creating “a factory unique in its construction and in the application of its motive power.” The new Keating Wheel Company factory in Middletown would be “entirely operated by electricity,” making it one of the first electric powered/group-drive manufacturing facilities in the United States.

Whether the use of electric power was the brainstorm of Keating or Ranger is unclear but the odds on favorite has to be Keating, the innovator.   While the factory in Holyoke had received some recognition for its “application of motive power,” particularly its use of a single cable for transferring waterpower from the generating plant to the building and in the general use of electric lighting, the Middletown plant was light-years ahead. Still, the Holyoke experience did provided one important and lasting lesson for the future; if at all possible, build your own power source.  The decision that the new factory would be constructed to optimize the use of self-generated electric power must have been made early on in the planning because Middletown was not a prime site for waterpower generation and was not close to being defined as a mill town on a par with cities like Holyoke, Springfield, Willimantic, Waterbury or Hartford.   For similar reasons, the availability of an existing mill of sufficient size in Middletown was never an option.  Keating came to Middletown not only because of the tax abatement and financing but because it afforded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build his own “factory machine” from the ground up, including the early adaptation of an emerging 20th century source of power.

The traditional mill at the time, including the Keating Wheel Company plant in Holyoke, generated its power from waterwheels, flumes or steam and distributed the energy through a loud and dangerous labyrinthine system of gears, shafts, countershafts, belts, belt shifters and pulleys.  Most of the mills built in the mid-19th century were four or more stories high and required a vertical system of belts and pulleys to get the power up to the top floors.  The higher the floor, the less power could be efficiently transferred because of losses along the way.  This required manufacturers to apportion their machinery accordingly, which did not result in the most efficient arrangement from the standpoint of production.  (Keating’s Holyoke plant’s fourth floor was relegated to a band room and an area for bicycle lessons partially because getting sufficient power up to it was difficult.)

The advent of the electric motor changed all that.  Power could now be distributed directly to individual machines or production departments wherever they might be located and the power to the motor could be provided through just a simple wire.  Where shafts and belts were cumbersome and limited in their application and installation, electrical wire could easily be installed at any length and bent to fit into any space.  These innovations introduced a huge amount of flexibility to the design and layout of factories.  They also provided more options in the placement of machinery and equipment that, in turn, offered efficiencies to the flow of production.  None of these innovations were lost on Keating.

But it was the use of electricity as the sole power source, without an “engine or a main belt coming into the factory proper,” that made Keating’s new plant especially unique. Keating and Ranger chose the relatively new General Electric Company (it had only been around for five years – less time than the Keating Wheel Company) as their partner and decided that the GE Company’s newly introduced 3-phase system was the way to go.  The heart of the new system was the external generating plant – Keating’s very own power source.  On February 13, 1897, Electrical World magazine described the Keating power plant in detail; among the technology wonks of the time it was a very big deal.

The engine and generating plant is located in the southeast corner of the plot, in a two-story brick and stone building.  Steam is generated by a Babcock & Wilcox boiler of 250 horse-power, separated by a brick partition from the engine room.  The engine, a cross-compound condensing Greene engine of 500 horse-power, built by the Providence Steam Engine Company, is erected upon the second floor upon brick and stone piers built up from the ground.  On the same floor is a General Electric three-phase generator, known as an A-T 16-pole, 250-kw, 450 –revolution, 60-cycle machine, also placed on piers carried up from the ground.  The main belt from the engine and fly-wheel passes down to the ground floor where a countershaft runs in bearings set upon brick and stone piers.  The shaft is carried the entire length of the room . . . This countershaft is arranged with couplings, so that any portion may be cut in or out, as may be required.

The exciter for the generator is a 4½ -kw machine of the 1. B. type, run from a pulley on the shaft of the three-phase machine.  Facing the generator is a Vermont marble switchboard carrying packed Card rheostats, current indicator, voltmeter and the necessary switches for controlling the exciter and the generator.  From the switchboard six wires, forming two circuits, issue from one of the windows of the powerhouse and pass to the main factory, supported on one pole only.  They are carried above one of the windows on the second floor of the factory, and there three of the wires terminate, while the other three, which constitute the circuit in service, follow the center of the roof of the second story for about three-fourths of the length of the whole building.  At the proper place they are tapped off, descending their respective pillars and passing through the door of the second story to the motors suspended from the ceiling of the first story.

The industry publication Cycle Age and Trade Review added that the application of electric power produced and delivered outside the factory significantly reduced machine and floor vibrations, “resulting in workmanship of the highest accuracy and uniformity.” Electrician magazine said that, once the power plant was up and running, the new electric Keating factory would “be one of the most complete cycle factories in the world.”

Ranger constructed the new factory not only to accommodate the electric power system but so that it would also afford Keating the flexibility to configure his production departments as efficiently as possible.  The general design of the building consisted of the main two-story structure, which at 1,000 feet in length was said to be as long as “four New York City blocks.” The first floor was intersected with a series of six perpendicular extensions or “Ls” off the north side or back of the building. The largest extension, the repair department and storeroom, was two stories high and measured 50 feet by 200 feet.   The other extensions, in order from north to south, included the blacksmith, brazing, polishing, plating and enameling departments -- each of these extensions measured approximately 100 feet by 50 feet.

The main shafting was about 800 feet long and two 350-foot shaft lines ran down either side at the north end of the building.  The main shaft was divided into three sections with a 50 horsepower induction motor installed at each section.  There was also a fourth shaft that ran 200 feet down the repair department located in the first extension, or “L” of the plant, which was powered by its own 20-horsepower induction motor.  Each motor had two pulleys attached at each end, which allowed each motor to drive four separate shafts. The motors were mounted on the ceiling to free up valuable floor space.

The use of electric motors to operate a group-drive power system allowed Keating to organize his bicycle manufacturing operations into specialized shops located in each of the “Ls” that extended out from the main factory, which was a major innovation in factory design and function.  The six extensions could only have been fully integrated with the main plant through the application of group-drive motors.  It would have been extremely difficult and highly inefficient to run the shafts in the extensions from the main shaft in the main building using traditional belt technology under a single-shaft system.  With the single shaft system, all the shafts in the factory would turn regardless of the number of machines being operated at any one time and the amount of power they might need.  With a group-drive arrangement, power could now be distributed using multiple motors, each operating independently with shorter shafts and matched to machines with similar running speeds and power loads.   The layout of the various departments within the six “Ls” was designed to maximize the flow of production as opposed to being simply located based on where the power source was.  As a consequence, the individual departments were “practically individual factories in themselves,” with their own self-contained and flexible power source.  As one expert in 19th century factory construction put it, the new Keating Wheel Company factory in Middletown was “unique in bicycle manufacturing and is uncommon by any 19th century standard for industrial design.” To put Keating’s innovative factory design into proper context, it would not be until the mid-1930s before just half of all the manufacturing plants and mills in the country would be using electricity as opposed to steam and water power.  The construction of the Keating Wheel Company factory may have been managed by Ranger but the design and layout was all Keating – the innovations were years ahead of their time.

When it came to insuring independence, Keating took the same precautions with water that he took with power.  On the east side of the powerhouse, the side nearest the river, he dug a deep well, which was filled with water from the river using a twenty-four inch pipe. He also built a standpipe between the river and the main building, probably pressurized for use in case of fire.

Keating’s impressive factory attracted other companies to relocate nearby.  In November, Paul Flagg, a metal fabricator, chose to build a new factory near the Keating Wheel Company plant with an eye to having his product become part of the Keating wheel. The construction of the new factory also had its setbacks, however.  On November 4, two of Keating’s employees, Elijah Metcalf and Michael Hennessy, were hurt installing the factory’s new electric motors when a large timber fell from the top of the staging area, hitting both men.  Fortunately, neither of the men was badly hurt.  Hennessy was only stunned but Metcalf required some stitches in his head. Progress comes at a price.

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