Herman Falk

May 1, 2006
Herman Falk was the son of an immigrant brewmaster who, in 1848, left Bavaria and settled in America to make beer. After Franz died, Herman and his three

Herman Falk was the son of an immigrant brewmaster who, in 1848, left Bavaria and settled in America to make beer. After Franz died, Herman and his three brothers inherited their father's successful Milwaukee brewery — but following a fire in 1889 and another in 1892, the brothers decided to get out of the beer business and sold to Captain Fred Pabst.

With capital from the brewery, Herman Falk began his quest to become an industrialist — and pursue his interest in things mechanical. At first, Herman joined with a partner and produced couplings to join shafts (or thills) to axles on horse-drawn wagons. But Falk's thill couplings failed to take the world by storm. So Herman tried again: He rented an old Falk building from Pabst Brewing and opened a general-purpose machine shop. There, Falk made stage machinery, did wagon repairs, and even shoed horses.

But Falk was not content with this arrangement, and kept on the lookout for other opportunities. Soon he learned that electric street railways lacked one service: The joints between streetcar rails were subjected to incessant pounding of heavy cars, so the rail ends wore down much more quickly than the rails themselves. Working with a Milwaukee electrician and inventor named Albert Hoffmann, Herman Falk soon developed a traveling foundry to service these ends. But with giants like General Electric and Westinghouse strengthening their hold on transit technology, and railway growth flattening, Falk was again squeezed out.

Falk then decided to move into the powerhouse supply business, buying Cloos Engineering Co. — a maker of switch insulation — in 1899. He also bought the Western Gear Co. from brothers John and Henry Kunz.

Regular foundry work replaced the railway business, and Falk became a producer of contract castings for steel plants in the Midwest. However, Falk continued to look for a niche he could call his own. While casting about for a new line — the search included buying the rights to a “printing-telegraph” at one point — his company's gear business was showing solid growth. But gears were only one business line among several, and Falk was only one gear manufacturer among many. Gears, after all, had been part of human technology for thousands of years, turning gristmills and raising water in ancient civilizations from China to Babylon.

The breakthrough was the electric motor. From the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution had moved forward on James Watt's steam engine. One massive engine could drive an entire factory. However, the system was inefficient and famously hazardous. In the early 1900s, electric motors improved things, but created a new problem: Standard electric motors operate most efficiently at speeds far too high to directly drive a tool or belt. Gears were needed to slow these speeds down. But what type? Planed spur gears with machine-cut teeth began to appear, but were still inaccurate. Some engineers began experimenting with single helical gears, but issues with side thrust remained a problem.

Then in 1909, Falk learned of Caspar Wüst-Kunz, a Swiss engineer who had developed a novel version of herringbone gearing and the hobbing machine to make it. Though Wüst-Kunz hadn't invented either, he was the first person to combine the two in a package for speed, precision, and economy.

A young engineer named Percy John Crandall Day was already at work turning the patents into actual products in England. After learning this, Falk began an effort to bring Day to work in the states.

Day landed in the United States on May 26, 1910 and spent his first year in Milwaukee building Wüst-gear hobbers. The initial response was less than resounding: The herringbone gear was practically unknown in the United States, and few understood its benefits. However, after a slow start, herringbone gears did catch on — and soon companies like Carnegie Steel, Anaconda Copper, Allis-Chalmers, Goodyear, and General Electric began using the component. Then the gears' use spread to where they do best — in heavy-duty units to crush ore, roll steel, grind raw rubber, tilt blast furnaces, and pump water to cities. Eventually Falk grew to employ more than 1,000 people.

Falk knew he had at last arrived when the U.S. Navy began using his gears. In 1913 when it was decided to expand the naval program, Falk was contracted to design gear units for three battleships and a destroyer. A year later, Falk provided the main drive for the famous submarine tender Bushnell. Today, Falk Corp. is part of Rexnord Industries, LLC, Milwaukee.

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