The birth of the American fan industry had its origin in the mind of a Maine shoemaker, Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, an inventor and mechanical genius, who was born into a small farming family in Norridgewock, Maine on January 18, 1833. At the age of 15, Sturtevant left home and became apprenticed to a shoemaker. But he did not remain long at his shoemaker's bench. The mechanical ability which was to shape the course of his life soon became evident. In those days, shoes were made by hand. Soles were attached to uppers by means of wooden pegs which were laboriously whittled by hand. Sturtevant sought a better way of making shoes. Though he was unacquainted with mechanics, he succeeded in designing a practical shoe pegging machine.In 1856, he came to Boston to find financial backing. In his pocket was 20 cents, just enough to pay carriage fare to transport the model to his boarding house. Sturtevant found a man to back his invention, but his restless mind continued to look for improvements. He soon realized the success of his pegger depended upon it having a suitable supply of pegging material and that an exhaustless series of pegs contained in a narrow strip of wood veneer could alone meet this wont.
No machine for cutting such veneer with a knife existed and to do this successfully, without shattering the wood, was thought impossible. To gain the required length of peg strip, Sturtevant conceived a plan, in 1859, of cutting a spiral ribbon from around a log across the grain, and after a week's labor with a common lathe and a crude spring, to control the log, he succeeded in obtaining a fair sample. It was not until sometime after, however, that he was successful in building a word veneer, mainly by evolving that spring into a press-bar.
The lathe took a peeled log of white birch and with great speed turned out a spiral veneer which at the same instant divided into ribbons (pegblanks) as wide as the length of a peg. Those ribbons were dried, beveled on one edge and fed from rolls into which they were wound into the pegger like thread into a sewing machine. The pegger then separated the pegs from the blanks and drove them into the shoe.
Just as success was about to visit him, disaster struck that same year. The owner of a bogus 1854 pegger patent, having examined the Sturtevant device, claimed an infringement. This spooked Sturtevant's capitalist into abruptly ending their relationship in 1860, leaving him again penniless but not without resource.
Cast-off by his supporter, he founded the B.F.Sturtevant Co. that year, opening a small shop at 72 Sudbury St. (where Government Center is now), employing 7 or 8 men making shoe peggers and pegs. In order to stay afloat during this start-up phase, Sturtevant sold off most of his patents covering veneer cutters, toothpicks and pegwood which netted the purchasers a great sum of money over time in comparison to the pittance he received in return.
In 1863, the business achieved profitability but another problem arose. The machine which cut the pegs produced a quantity of fine wood dust which annoyed the workmen. Sturtevant's inventive mind took up the challenge. This time he designed an exhauster which whisked the dust away from the work benches, permitting his men to work in comfort. The utility of the fan became evident as the onset of the Industrial Revolution caused a demand explosion for effective air handling equipment.
The centrifugal fan, or fan blower, was no new thing. As applied for the purposes of ventilation, it dates back to the 16th century. There were tentative steps in the early 19th century to use it as an auxiliary or replacement for chimney draft. But engine speeds and steam pressures were low in those days, the demand for accelerated combustion wasn't urgent and there was only rudimentary knowledge about the proper application of fans for forced draft. As a consequence this economic improvement, of critical importance in later years, was mainly ignored.
Its natural advantages of low noise and minimum friction, versus piston operated blowers, had been overshadowed by their anemic blast. While good enough for forges and heating furnaces, they were woefully insufficient in any industrial process. By careful attention to correcting the design flaws in the casing and impeller, Sturtevant transformed the simple fan blower into a pressure blower that became a boon to industry
Being the first to apply sound engineering principles to these early crude devices at this historical inflection point, Benjamin Sturtevant can accurately be called the father of the American fan industry, having built the first commercially successful blower in 1864.
A ready market developed for his blowers for conveying materials and for furnishing draft for forges, cupolas and boilers. In the later application, forcing combustion air into ashpits allowed the burning of cheap grades of fuel which had previously been impossible with ordinary chimney draft.
By 1866, the business had grown to the point where Sturtevant was employing nearly 50 men - all making fans. Equipping the US Capitol with ventilating fans that year was one of the more notable early installations. Around this time, some of his burgeoning wealth was used to establish a New Hampshire pegmill factory, reflecting a continued interest in the wood industry.
In 1869, the modern heating era began with Sturtevant's introduction of a hot blast system. The "Sturtevant System", as it became known, consisted of a steam engine driven fan passing large volumes of air through steel pipe heater coils and distributing it within a factory or building via ductwork. Unlike passive direct radiation and indirect where a radiator was placed in a flue and air allowed to pass over it and into a room, the Sturtevant approach of forced circulation was an efficient, integrated system that could be used for any combination of ventilation, heating, cooling and air cleaning demands.
Business grew rapidly as the company's first mover advantage put them in a dominant position they never relinquished. In 1876, they moved to a factory in Jamaica Plain. Meanwhile, new products had been added. In addition to fans; pipe coil heaters, steam engines, drying apparatus and complete heating and ventilating systems were made.
The year 1879 marked the first use of fans for hull ventilation. Prior to this time, the order "batten down the hatches" was dreaded by sailors. With berth decks tight against ventilation, the air became damp and foul. Sturtevant introduced the first mechanical ventilating system, designed and built especially for installation aboard Navy warships. The success of the installation was attested by the Chief Engineer who stated: "The Richmond is the most healthful, completely ventilated ship under the US flag or any other".
Sturtevant again made Navy history, in 1886, when the USS Alliance was equipped with their mechanical draft fans. The ship used both sail and steam power, the sails were chiefly used to save coal at cruising speeds. This was the first extensive test on a US warship and the results were sensational. Two of the Alliance's six boilers were eliminated and the remaining four produced 50% more power. From that time on, sails were no longer used by the Navy. These successes cemented Sturtevant as the Navy's primary supplier of air handling equipment through WW2.
Following in the footsteps of several other American companies, Benjamin Sturtevant established a foreign outlet that same year in London, England, under the Sturtevant Blower Co. name, to handle his European business.
The death of the founder in 1890 ushered in a new era for the company.
The Governor Takes OverEugene Foss, Sturtevant's son-in-law and future Massachusetts governor, became principal owner. The business was incorporated that year and, following a destructive fire in 1901, moved to the town of Hyde Park(later absorbed by Boston) in 1903. If Foss's campaign literature is accurate, his ascension to owner was an important reason why the company remained in Boston following the fire. Industry speculation was that Sturtevant would relocate to the Pittsburgh area, in close proximity to their raw material source. Given his social standing and political aspirations, the story is plausible.
The B.F.Sturtevant Co. arrived in the Readville section of Hyde Park as the largest industrial fan manufacturer in the world, situating their works in a strategic location. Abutting an industrial waterway and near the juncture of three important railroads, they had access to a large pool of skilled workmen and excellent transportation. Built by renowned mill architects Lockwood, Green and Co, the sprawling ten building, twenty acre complex was highly integrated and self-sufficient with onsite foundry, forge and machine shops. An internal network of overhead cranes, small gauge track, a team of horses and a workforce of 1500 were utilized to move product throughout the plant.
The company's broad product line can be summed up in one sentence: if it drove or used fans in some way, they probably made it. Their applications for ventilation, heating, air conditioning, dust and fume removal, power production, material conveying, drying and vacuum cleaning served every industry. The years leading up to WW1 saw several of these product lines, some historically notable, introduced.
Sturtevant was not only one of the earliest manufacturers of air conditioning equipment, they also played an important part in the development of A/C in the years that followed. In 1906, they installed the first industrial process A/C system at the Walter Baker chocolate company of Dorchester, MA. This was followed by one of the first comfort A/C systems at a Chicago hotel in 1910. Carrier Corp., long before they became a multi-billion dollar giant, competed with Sturtevant in the industrial and commercial markets through the 50s. The Sturtevant people took a dim view of the flamboyant founder, Willis Carrier, whom they referred to (at least internally) as the "father of humidity", a derisive slam at what they thought was excessive self-promotion and boastful claims of being the father of air conditioning.
Also in 1910, Sturtevant entered the vacuum cleaner and aeronautical fields. Preceded by two years of research, vacuums for residential and commercial work were introduced under both the Sturtevant name and through a joint venture with Western Electric (best known as the former manufacturing arm of AT&T). Their decade long venture into aviation, both engines and aircraft, though ultimately unsuccessful, did push out the technological envelope and provided a material contribution to our brief war effort during 1917-1918.
In 1913, they opened their second foreign factory in Galt, Canada. This was solely to evade a tariff that was effecting their Canadian prospects.
The company's solid performance contrasted with Foss' deteriorating financial condition. In 1917, a sharp decline in the Governor's investments pushed him to the point of bankruptcy and imperiled the family's continued ownership. All his assets, including Sturtevant, were put into receivership that year with a reorganization committee comprised of local bank executives placed in charge of his financial and business affairs. Major equity holdings in Brooklyn Rapid Transit, Boston Elevated Railway, American Can and Erie Railroad were among those liquidated. His retention of Sturtevant can in part be explained by the backlog of war-time defense contracts that the government didn't want disrupted.
Unaffected by the turmoil, the post-WW1 period saw Sturtevant reach its peak. A flurry of expansion activity was begun, with new plants in Framingham, MA(1919); Camden, NJ(1922); Berkley,CA(1923) and Sturtevant, WI(1923), and two major advancements introduced to their customers.
The trend in centrifugal fan design has varied since the birth of the fan industry. Prior to 1908, so-called "steel plate" or "paddle wheel fans" predominated. Then, because of greater capacity in a given size, the trend swung almost overnight to the multiblade fan with many forwardly pitched blades.
In 1922, with the announcement of the early Sturtevant Silentvane fans, a backwardly-curved design which increased fan efficiency from 60 to 75%, the switch in fan popularity among architects, engineers and industrial users toward the new fan was even more pronounced. Soon more than one thousand Silentvanes had been sold. The most notable early installation was the sale of 90 fans for the ventilation of the Holland Tunnel, the world's first long-underwater, mechanically ventilated, vehicular tunnel.
The position which Sturtevant had gained in the engineering world was due directly to the fact that beginning with Benjamin Sturtevant's early fan designs, and continuing through the years, Sturtevant had pioneered in fan design and application the highest static efficiencies ever developed. In this latest model, coupled with high efficiency were many other desirable characteristics, such as a rising pressure curve, a true non-overloading horsepower curve and a quietness which caused the name "Silentvane" to be adopted and trademarked.
Such leadership explains why the majority of electric utilities and large manufacturers used Sturtevant draft fans in their powerplants, an engineering intensive application.
In 1927, the company introduced Inlet Vane Control. An important corollary of mechanical draft equipment, vane control consists of movable vanes mounted around the rotor hub in the inlet of the fan, which can be adjusted to control the volume and pressure. The introduction of vane control gave quick accurate control, for the first time, for varying load requirements, permitting the use of constant speed motors and materially reducing power consumption.
Both the Silentvane and Vane Control were developed under Harold Hagen, the Director of Research beginning in 1916.
This latest achievement initiated a new foreign business relationship for Sturtevant in 1930. James Howden, a large Scottish engineering firm, had an established air preheater they couldn't package with their fans for powerstation sales due to design inefficiencies created by the air duct dampers, their only way of controlling fan output. A Howden executive came to America to see the successful Sturtevant fans with vane control. Soon after, a license was granted with Howden gaining exclusive reseller rights to Sturtevant mechanical draft equipment in the British Isles ( this arrangement probably ended in the 1940s).
It was during WW2 that the Marine Department, and the whole company, reached a very high point of achievement. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, submarines - virtually every American fighting ship was outfitted with Sturtevant equipment. Sturtevant fans along with motors, steam turbines and heating apparatus went out to sea in thousands of ships.
Hyde Park was traditionally a "Navy" plant and in both World Wars its products were devoted in large measure to Navy requirements. During WW2, eighty percent of the output of Hyde Park and the smaller plants was dedicated to the Navy with a combined total of over 40,000 fans produced by VJ Day.
Click the "At War" link to read 6 pages from Sturtevant's WW2 booklet describing those contributions in greater detail. Below are company wartime advertisements.
Sturtevant's third ownership came as American industry was preparing itself for the post-war years and a member of the Foss family decided to force a sale. In the waning days of WW2, Westinghouse (1945-1985) acquired The B.F.Sturtevant Co. Sturtevant's dominant position in the fan and blower fields, strong patent protection and success in industrial air conditioning made it a solid piece in their future plans.
The transition year of 1946 was marked by a multimillion-dollar capital upgrade of Hyde Park, with nearly 200 machines junked, as Westinghouse began retrofitting the outdated facility to handle both the old and new product lines. The latter included the Precipitron (electrostatic air cleaner), refrigeration compressors, condensers, waterchilling units and A/C product lines; all transferred from a Westinghouse New Jersey plant. This commitment allowed them to absorb the flood of new business during the 40s and ride the Eisenhower Boom of the 50s. These good times eventually stretched Hyde Park beyond capacity, necessitating leasing part of a local shipyard to produce fan housings until more buildings could be erected.
Significant changes by Westinghouse would impact the new Division's future viability. Along with the discontinuation of electric motor, drying equipment and vacuum cleaner products soon after purchase, in 1954 the A/C business was moved to Virginia as a separate division. This was a sharp departure from their original intention, stated at an introductory meeting between Westinghouse and Sturtevant executives in 1945, that the combined know-how and personnel of both companies would put the new Sturtevant Division in a predominant position in the field of air conditioning. The net effect was to convert Sturtevant to a pure industrial fan company with the increased risk associated with a narrower focus.
The closure of two remaining small factories in California and Illinois in the late 50s was a response to the increased competition being felt. Attempts at cost cutting in the 60s proved disastrous by the early 70s. Customers weren't satisfied with the products or services. Extensive field problems and warranty claims resulted from the reduced mechanical integrity of the fans. When Truman Netherton took over the financially troubled Division in 1972, the situation was bleak enough for him to have written out a speech announcing the closure of Sturtevant.
In 1973, they embarked on a new strategy that delayed that speech from being given. The emphasis was now on the large heavy fan business, specifically, the electric utility market where engineering content, their strength, was a major market factor. An order in 1975 spoke volumes about their continued solid reputation with that market. It was for 12 Series 4000 fans (65 tons each and a fan housing as big as a house!), the biggest (in terms of dollars) and fastest (tip speed) of that type fan. An excerpt from a company newsletter stated;"We weren't the lowest bidder, We won the contract because of our reputation in the business", according to Bert Stern, product manager. "Before the contract was awarded, Bechtel and the Salt River people canvassed the country, asking questions at dozens of power stations. They found that Sturtevant had the most installations and the most trouble-free installations. They knew we had not built fans this size before to operate at 885 rpm, but because of our reputation they felt they could count on us to deliver a well-designed product built to rigid specifications."
Sturtevant, now a niche fan manufacturer, would have success for the remainder of the 70s, with a workforce down to 700, but the effects of the oil shocks and deindustrialization on the American economy created overcapacity in the power industry. With Wall Street and shareholder pressure to pursue high growth sectors, Westinghouse began looking to shed its underperforming industrial assets.
ClosureThe sale of Sturtevant to South African-based American-Davidson in 1985 marked the effective end of the business. While the purchase agreement with Westinghouse required keeping Hyde Park operational for three years, a sense of doom was palpable from the beginning with all the cutbacks, layoffs and bad morale. Further confirmation of Davidson's disinterest came with the sale of Sturtevant's industrial fan line to Acme Engineering & Manufacturing of Oklahoma that same year for a reported $1 million. Their website acknowledges the fan's historical lineage with the following front page declaration: "Acme's industrial blower line can claim to be the successors of the first fans made in the United States and Europe".
In 1988, an 80% reduction in Davidson's share price due to a protracted industry downturn and their association with a pariah state prompted a takeover by Howden-Sirocco, the modern iteration of James Howden Ltd. Sturtevant's fate was sealed when it was decided to consolidate manufacturing at their Canadian facilities. In 1989, Hyde Park was closed, nearly 130 years of history had come to an end.