The Forgotten Falk Corporation

Like many great companies, today the Falk Corporation is forgotten. At its height, it perfected the silicon chips of the industrial era. Falk designed and manufactured fat gears and thin gears, cheap gears and expensive gears, gears that could open the Panama Canal, and gears that fit on a small desk. It made gears for engines, dams, trains, conveyor belts, subway systems—any industry that needed to transfer power probably used Falk Gears.

There’s a good argument to be made that after a century of dominating the industrial era, it fell victim to the innovator’s dilemma. Falk’s corpse was sold for $295 million in 2005. Today it doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia page.

I began researching the Falk Corporation because I wanted to learn more about the innovation network of Silicon Valley. It may seem odd to research a defunct Milwaukee-based gear manufacturer for this, but it makes sense when you ponder the history. By every conceivable measure Silicon Valley is the epic center of modern innovation. The bulk of the software and algorithms that power the world are designed inside the 20 mile region. Its evolution is also fairly straightforward: government subsidies, elite education system, solid business support and infrastructure, etc. In the early 1900s, as crazy as it sounds, that innovation epic center may have been Milwaukee. The industry was industrial metal fabrication, and in a span of about twenty years 10-15 companies that would dominate the mid 1900s sprouted within few miles. Six came from a 3-4 block radius in what is now known as Walker’s Point: Pawling & Harnischfeger (cranes), Kearney & Trecker (milling), A.O. Smith (car frames), Allis Chambers (everything), Nordberg and Chain Belt (mining equipment).

That’s what set me down the Falk Corporation’s path. I was trying to discover why it came to be, and what it means for today’s world–specifically building an innovation based economy. Here’s a super annotated version of my notes on the early history of the Falk Corporation. They’re primarily derived from the Milwaukee Public Library’s vast resources and the work of Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

Founder:

Herman Falk, was born into a life of immense privilege and opportunity. His father, a cooper’s son, started Falk Brewery. At its peak, it out produced 20th century giants Schlitz and Miller—combined. The brewery had production capacity of around 200,000 barrels. To put that in perspective, today the largest brewery in Chicago maxes out at 250,000. In 1892 the largest brewing company in the world was created when the family sold itself to Pabst for over $500,000 in stock.

  • Besides making him rich, Herman Falk used the brewery’s old production facilities as his early machine shop. His first major customer was Pabst—the company that made his family wealthy.
  • Received his first patent when he was just 20 for “new and useful Improvements in Wagon-Breaks.”

Early Company History:

  • Falk first success was a mobile foundry that could repair broken street car track joints. By 1900 almost 1/3 of all street rail tracks in America had Falk castings.
  • The process caught on. By 1900 the industry was essentially commoditized.
  • In 1909 he bought the exclusive American rights to Caspar Wust-Kuntz’s herringbone gear design. By 1915 engineers refined the technology to create 16 feet wide gears that could turn 50 feet and return to 1/10,000 inch of the original starting point.
  • The company probably would have died without government contracts. Prior to WW1 the Federal Government allocated $500 million for naval expansion. This meant 32 orders for gear drives to power Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s destroyers.
  • After WW1 the company focused on selling lots of standardized orders, rather than large custom designs.
  • Early Eastern and Southern European immigration bans boosted sales as a low labor supply generated interest in automation.
  • This led to the creation of regulators to control industrial motors and coupling units to control multiple machines at once.
  • Spearheaded early co-op programs with local schools.
  • Incredibly anti-union, caught falsifying Navy hourly billings.

That’s the gist of the Falk Corporation’s early history. If you have any additional thoughts or recommendations I’d love to hear them!

Image via Flickr

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20 Comments The Forgotten Falk Corporation

  1. Suzy Thompson

    Hi!
    My name is Susan Falk Thompson and I have just come across your article about the Forgotten Falk Corp.

    My father, Harold Frank Falk, was the last of the Falk family to serve as President and oversaw the sale of the company.

    As a child I knew “Uncle Herman” Falk and still have a picture of his yacht, the Seaforth, hanging in my office. Harold Sands Falk, my grandfather, served as President of the company when Herman Falk retired.

    I am curious about the last line in your article stating that the company was
    caught falsifying Navy hourly billings.”

    This came as a real surprise to me as I know that the company received a number of awards from the Navy and that the officers were on a friendly basis with a number of admirals.

    Can you tell me where you found this info?

    I thought your article was very thoughtful and interesting.

    Thanks for writing it!

    Suzy Thompson

    Reply
    1. Egardner

      Thanks for commenting. It’s always good to hear that people actually read an article, rather than it floating into the ether.

      The source on falsifying Navy hours was the following book:

      The Making of “A Good Name in Industry”: A History of the Falk Corporation, 1892-1992 by John Gurda.

      It’s fairly expensive on Amazon, but if you’re local to Milwaukee, the Central Library has a copy of it in its local history room.

      I don’t have the exact page numbers for the story in my notes, but here’s a bit more detail from what I wrote down.

      The 1935 Wagner Act ushered in mass unionization within heavy industry. Management at Allis Chambers, Bucryus, and A.O. Smith recognized their employees right to collectively bargain. Falk management didn’t. They retaliated against workers, specifically firing one of the lead organizers–a guy named Anton Kinch. Kinch went to authorities claiming that Falk defrauded the Navy by charging time spent on commercial jobs to the U.S. Navy jobs. The Navy investigated and more or less verified Kinch’s claims. I don’t believe anything major happened out of it.

      I just did a search for “Anton Kinch”. It turns out he wrote a book on the scandal. I haven’t read it, but if you’re interested it looks like you can read it online.

      Reply
    2. Kathleen Harris

      Enjoyed the article. Mr. Falk and the Seaforth are mentioned in Peninsula State Park’s Camp Meenahga archives. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing it. I work as the naturalist at Peninsula State Park and am working on a book related to Camp Meenahga.

      Reply
  2. Tom Villand

    We are involved in a project that includes deep diver Max Gene Nohl who had set the world’s deepest dive in Lake Michigan. In 1935 he built a small diving bell called Hell Below. He had Falk Corporation fabricate it. He later built a large dive bell and shipped it to Silver Springs, Florida. We think Falk might have fabricated it. We are looking for any information about Nohl and these two diving bells.

    Reply
  3. Roy Johnson

    Dear Mr. Gardner
    I stumbled across your article “The Forgotten Falk and really enjoyed it. I spent 35 years with Falk and retired in 1992 as one of two regional sales managers. In my first two years of training there was a young man on the program named Nelson Hyde. He was married to Cindy Falk. Harold’s daughter. Suzan, Cindy’s sister, wrote you on the article. Wondered if you know where she lives or what her number is? I’d love to get ahold of her to discuss this history.
    A Falk Loyalist
    Roy Johnson

    Reply
    1. Greg Caulton

      Mr. Gardner –
      I read with great interest your article on The Forgotten Falk Corporation, because it is not forgotten by me. Mostly because of their Sales professional Roy Johnson. I was a customer, General Motors, Electro-Motive Division. I see that Mr. Johnson posted a couple of comments on your site. I would like to reach Roy just to say hi and see if he remembers me. Can you forward me his email address? Thank you.
      Greg Caulton

      Reply
  4. Kevin Greene

    I believe my grandfather worked at Falk Corporation in the 40s/50s. He was a member of Steamfitters Local 601.

    Thanks for writing the article.

    Reply
  5. Roy Johnson

    We worked as a sales engineer at Falk from 1957 to 1992. When I started, Harold,Dick, and Louie owned and ran the company. In the early years we worked with Nelson Hyde , who was married to one of Harold’s daughters. She must have been the sister of Susan Thompson Falk who replied to your article. Do you know where she is located? Rex has brought Falk to it’s knees. We enjoyed your article.

    Reply
  6. Roy Johnson

    Spent 35 years at Falk and retired as one of 2 Regional Sales Managers. Dick Falk first offered me a job when he wanted me to pitch for the baseball team. We were on the training program with Nelson Hyde, who was married to Susan Falk’s sister (who responded to your article) . Nelson died in a boating accident and we often wondered how his family was.

    Reply
  7. Suellen

    I am one of Nelson Hyde’s daughters. I live in California
    . It’s so exciting to hear from my aunt Suzy Thompson (Falk) go Falk!

    Reply
  8. Peggy Burch

    Did the Falk Corporation have a mine? I have stock certificates from the Falk Mining Company from the 1920 & 1930’s.

    Reply
  9. John Patin

    Great article about Falk Corporations.

    I worked for Falk Corp in
    Australia for a few years, also
    Distribution of their products.
    1972 to 2008.

    Reply
    1. Aleta J Shumway

      ;Hi, My Grandfather Edwin Walloch worked at Falk for about 40 some years I believe ! My Dad, Richard Walloch, also worked there about that long as well! Loved the article! I was actually looking to see if there was any information on the desiner/s of the Falk logo? My Dad recently informed me my Grandfather designed one of them! I just wanted to see his name, thought it would be cool! He was an incredibly artistic Man! The one with the Fat Pudgy letters! One of the first ones! If not the first! Just interested in the history of designer/s! Of logos. If you have any info on that, it would be nice to see! Thank you! Aleta Shumway!

      Reply
  10. Kevin Wall

    I worked at Falk from 1974 to 1980 first as a Timekeeper then as an Industrial Engineer. Worked only in the weld shop. Great company and people. Sad it is not the same company now.
    Kevin Wall

    Reply
  11. Susan Montgomery

    Interesting story. My cousins from Milwaukee were descended from the Falk Family. (Their mother’s mother was a Falk. My aunt was Mary Caroline Carpenter Bruce.)

    Reply
  12. Kevin Paskey

    I really enjoyed reading this. I’m from Madison, but now live in Arkansas. I visited a coal mining museum in Paris, Arkansas and found one of the items they had was a large gear on a hoist marked “Falk & Co. Milwaukee” I think the gear is from the early 20th century as mining ended there after World War II. Thanks again!

    Reply
  13. Stephen M. Leahy

    Hi, I enjoyed reading this. I am working on conservative activists in Milwaukee County. I came across a Harold Falk in 1964 who became the Finance Chair for Barry Goldwater for President. I also have come across Falk’s who were John Birch Society members.

    Reply

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