This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.
In THAT busy, pushing, turbulent year of 1888, Warren Webster was doing well with his profitable ventilator and brass casting business, but on every hand new enterprises were on the way and he, like all his world, was on the lookout for Opportunity. And Opportunity did come—in the guise of a man whom we shall designate as Mr. Smith to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
One busy day in May, this man walked into the shop, laid a sheaf of patent papers on Warren Webster’s desk, and offered to sell him a half-interest in a new type of feedwater heater.
In 1888, electric lights and gas lights were in fairly general use in the business centers, hotels, etc., of large cities. While their great illuminating power was undeniable, yet for close work and reading most persons preferred a good oil-lamp to the yellowish electric gleam or the nickering gaslight. The telephone had won its place, but it was subject to squeaks and buzzes and was by no means the clear instrument of today. Steam, too, was in use as a heating medium, but its use was confined to the factories, shops, hotels and larger buildings. A steam-heated room was either too hot or quickly became uncomfortably cold when the steam was shut off. Frequently the steam became “trapped” in the pipes and pounded unpleasantly; when the pipes were hot there was usually an unpleasant, steamy odor. Steam was not employed in heating homes, not even large mansions. Many of the swankiest office buildings depended on large open fire-places for heat.
These conditions might well have obscured the outlook, but Warren Webster with his clear vision knew intuitively that he stood on the threshold of something big. Just how big, of course, he could not have realized, for no one could have told on that day in 1888 that within a few years the population of a good-sized town would be housed in one building, standing in the space of two or three city lots, towering up and up into the sky, tier after tier, and that due largely to his work and developments, people would enjoy June weather in that building the year ’round—from the cellar even to the uppermost floor.
After careful consideration, Warren Webster bought a half interest in two Smith Patents—later a full interest was acquired, and started in the Steam Heating Industry.
Although he continued the manufacture of Star Ventilators and brass castings, Warren Webster was thinking more and more in terms of Feedwater Heaters. He soon discovered that Mr. Smith’s idea was by no means complete and needed development before it could be marketed. It was only after a great deal of experimental work that he built his first feedwater heater which he called the “Webster Exhaust Steam and Fuel Economizer”—and later the “Webster Vacuum Feedwater Heater and Purifier.”
It may be described, briefly, as a tank or container made of wrought or cast iron in which the exhaust or waste steam from engines, pumps and other motive units was brought into intimate contact with fresh water suitable for boiler feed purposes. A very important feature was inducing a flow of exhaust steam from a branch of the main exhaust pipe into a chamber sealed from the atmosphere by means of the vacuum of condensation created when the hot exhaust steam was condensed in mixing with the colder body of water within the chamber. The water could be heated to 210° F and purified.
Said Warren Webster: “Smith had nothing but a simple patent—that of 1877. It conveyed an idea/but it was not a practical commercial idea until someone made improvements to it. He claimed that it was a complete feedwater heater, but it was not.
There were other feedwater heaters on the market at the time, but the Webster Feedwater Heater was so superior in efficiency that it paid to substitute it for the old types. It could be sold on the economy basis both to new plants and existing plants.
As to this, Warren Webster said: “My feedwater heaters were all put in on trial. Nobody was obligated to keep a heater if he didn’t like it after sixty days. They could send them right back to the factory. But I never had one sent back that I can recall—not one. All the customers kept them and paid for them.
“The first feedwater heater was installed in a paper house in Philadelphia, on Branch Street. It exploded, blew out the side of the building and burnt my arm, but I found out what the trouble was and overcame it in the next one I made.
“Next I placed one in the Esterbrook Pen factory in Camden. They were forcing the boiler and getting water at 110° F. I installed my feedwater heater on trial as usual. If it proved satisfactory, they were to pay for it. If not, it could be disconnected. The place could be run either way—with mine, or the old one. After the Webster Feedwater Heater had been in operation a very short time, the saving was so great that Mr. Wood, the manager, was delighted and wanted to pay for it before thirty days were up.”
As soon as he developed the Smith Patent, he began to apply it to steam heating. The heating engineering necessary for the application of Feedwater Heaters led to the development of the Vacuum System of Steam Heating, a principle pioneered by Warren Webster and now universally recognized. This principle served as the basis for the development of the whole group of Webster Systems of Steam Heating. Said my father:
“Everything was going well and I had installed forty Vacuum Steam Heating Systems when we ran into a suit for infringement of the Williames Patent. My lawyer, Mr. Moyer, now discovered that Smith had sold his patent rights to other persons before he came to me; likewise, the opposing counsel found that the records at Washington showed that the patent belonged to other people. To make matters worse, in defending the suit I had already signed a bill of complaint claiming I owned the patent, which (however innocently it had been done on my part) practically amounted to perjury before the law. When this was shown at Washington, I was given thirty days to acquire the patent or stand prosecution. The only way I could see of raising the money to buy the patent rights within thirty days was by selling my patent and business on the Star Ventilator which I owned free and clear. Merchant & Co., now Merchant & Evans, made the Globe Ventilator. The Star was of equal size, but would do more work, and when selling in competition, I could always go in and demonstrate this and get the order. Merchant & Co. became interested in the Star because I was interfering with their business, so they took the agency and found it to be a good thing. I went direct to Mr. Merchant, and said: ‘Here is the position I am in—I need $6,000.’ Their Mr. Cohen, with whom I dealt, used his influence with Mr. Merchant, and I sold them the patent, trade-mark and stock of the Star Ventilator for $6,000.
“I used $4500 of this to acquire the rights of the Smith Patent. I had the names and addresses of the people who owned these rights—rights which Smith had first sold to them and then resold to me, and I had to go and buy the rights of each of them. I met one of these persons on Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia, and he told me he knew beforehand that I was going to buy his rights because Smith said to him one day that I would have to acquire all rights within a short time. Smith asked what this man wanted for his rights and was told ‘$1000.’ Then he said: ‘Ask $1500– he will pay it.’ I did pay it—I paid each of them the same price.
“We put up a long and expensive fight against Williames, but he won the suit. We found that the Smith Patent didn’t cover the application of the vacuum system. It was suggestive of it, but it did not cover it.
“Williames had been Smith’s agent at one time. He saw the weakness of the patent. The Williames Patent (U. S. Patent No. 256,089, dated April 4, 1882) covered every feature that could make the Smith Patent practical. The Williames Patent was a remarkable patent in its class, because it was a true basic patent upon a new method of steam heating. It was so broad in its scope that it did not cover apparatus. It was infringed by the attachment of any kind of vacuum pump or any other means for creating and maintaining in the return line of a heating system a pressure lower than that of the atmosphere.
“Just before his suit against me, Williames had won a decree in New York State against the Ingersoll Rock Drill Company. He was in position to sue me on every Vacuum Steam Heating System we had installed.
“I saw my entire business about to be swept away. It was the biggest problem that had ever come up in my experience. Then I made up my mind what to do.
“Williames was the Chief Engineer of the old Philadelphia Inquirer Building. I went to him and said: ‘You are an engineer, Mr. Williames, and you understand that I have a profitable business in feedwater heaters. I could give away vacuum systems if I had your improvements to sell in conjunction with my feedwater heaters.’
“I had to go to see him twenty-three times before he agreed to sell me his patent. You may rest assured I ascertained everything was in ‘accordance with Hoyle’ this time.
“With the acquiring of the Williames Patent began in earnest the promotion of the Webster Vacuum System of Steam Heating and also Webster Feedwater Heaters and the steady development of Warren Webster & Company.”
During the last fifty-one years, more than three hundred patents have been employed in the development of the Webster business—some by original inventions of Warren Webster himself, some by various members of the Organization and the engineering staff, some by purchase, while rights under other patents were acquired by license.
Guiding his Company through this labyrinth of pitfalls and misadventures called for the utmost wisdom, farsighted vision and courage on the part of Warren Webster. This is the more remarkable because he started in business for himself when only twenty-five years old, with a business rather than a technical education and practically no text books or precedents to guide him. He was pioneering a new and highly technical industry.
He had at great effort acquired patent rights and built a business only to find the patent worthless and himself in danger of Government prosecution because of having innocently signed a false bill of complaint. He had been forced to sacrifice a profitable part of his business to obtain funds. He had lost an expensive suit for infringement. Yet, out of it all he emerged with his business on a sound basis and in full control of the necessary patent rights for its development. Above all he attained every objective fairly and without any of the legal chicanery which anyone who reads Miss Tarbell’s “History of the Standard Oil Company” knows was only too typical of the period.
During the long weeks that Warren Webster had been engaged in patent litigation and, later, in the purchase of the Williames Patent, he had been forced to somewhat neglect his feedwater heater business. Now that he was master of the situation, he turned all his energies to the manufacture of feedwater heaters, under the new name of the Webster Vacuum Exhaust Steam Economizer, and to the promotion of the Webster Vacuum System of Steam Heating. There was literally no end to his working day.
Said my father: “The feedwater heater business started in 1888. It was a profitable business until 1925-1926. After that it dwindled and we sold them only occasionally to the few industries that generated their own power. The vacuum system started a little later. It was not a profitable business for a long time. We developed both businesses side by side. In time people would pay for our experience and apparatus rather than try to do it themselves without measurements or patents. They wanted our advice on how to do it. The Feedwater Heater sold almost entirely to industry.
The Vacuum Heating System started as an industrial proposition for factories, principally for heating. The development of the size of residential units brought the vacuum system into the apartment house, hotel and office building field. Many difficult problems of an engineering nature were encountered. In many cases, this resulted in the invention and manufacture of new “gadgets” which were applied by our engineers thereafter when similar problems were encountered in other buildings. This was the start of the Webster Specialty part of the business.
“In the beginning,” father said, “I had to make the sale, direct manufacturing operations and supervise installations. Selling the equipment was the smallest part of the job. I realized that anything like rapid expansion was impossible under these conditions and that I must build up a strong field organization of competent and experienced engineers.
“On the road, I carried my samples, photographs and blueprints in a sack slung over my shoulder. After some time I used a satchel, and later, a hand traveling-case.
“The first man I got was Tom Geoghegan. He was a good practical plumber and, at that time, chief engineer of the Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Industrial Reformatory. I met him when I went up there to estimate on a Webster Vacuum Exhaust Steam Economizer for that institution. He supervised the installation.
He understood so quickly everything I told him and was so practical and thorough, especially in pipe-work, that I was impressed with him and engaged him to work for us. After I had taken him around and explained the different types of installations, he was fine. He was the first man to whom I could entrust installation work and so increase the feedwater heater business. He was one of the most valuable employees I ever had.
“The next man I hired was Candlass—he came from Cincinnati. He, too, was very fine. After that I chose more men, one at a time, very carefully. I brought them to the factory and held little meetings and showed them how to overcome difficulties which might arise. If any trouble occurred anywhere, all the other fellows were told about it and especially what corrections were made. In the course of a year or so I had a staff of about ten well-trained and competent engineers.
“At this time, I became aware that a certain big Philadelphia concern was infringing my patents. We entered suit and twelve years later got a decision against them and collected royalties on every installation they had made all over the country.
“We continued to gradually widen our scope. Our first district representative was one W. D. Pickels, in Chicago. In 1889, Darling Brothers, Ltd., of Montreal, were named Canadian representatives—our first agents outside the United States.”
Darling Brothers, Ltd., have continued to manufacture and sell Webster Steam Heating Systems up to the present day and in all these years the most pleasant and cordial business relationship has existed.
“When I got married in 1891,” said my father, “the business was expanding quite rapidly. I was anxious to do some building—a factory that would take care of our growth for some years, and a home according to some plans which we liked. However, I felt that my finances would not permit me to do this for some time.
“Just then a man, whom I will call Mr. Thomas for the sake of the story, came to me with a very tempting offer. He had two sons. The younger was supposed to be in business with his father, who was a banker. When the old gentleman saw that the Feedwater Heater line was proving successful, he offered me $30,000 for a one-third interest for his younger son.
“At that particular time his offer looked very big to me. But I knew his son. He was all right in his own sphere, but he wouldn’t fit in our Company. He was a swell dresser—dudish. A ‘ten-to-three’ man—dictated a few letters and thought he had done a day’s work. I thought it over and said: ‘Mr. Thomas you are a rich man. Your son is the son of a rich man and he wouldn’t fit in our business at all. I don’t want anybody who isn’t a worker. Sometime I may have to give up ownership, but right now I see nothing to prevent me from going right along and expanding. Even if you made it more I would still have to decline your offer.’
He said: ‘You speak to me very plainly about my son.’ I said: ‘I know I do. But that is how I feel and I might as well speak plainly. He and I wouldn’t go together at all.”
“‘Mr. Webster,’ he said to me, ‘it isn’t so much the money with me as it is to get my son fixed with somebody who will help him make something of himself.’
“As a matter of fact, in 1893 I obtained the capital I needed in a way I wanted it. The value of the Webster Vacuum Exhaust Steam Economizer and the Webster vacuum principle had been recognized in Europe, and Eugene Maulier, of Antwerp, Belgium, offered to buy all of the European patent rights. I accepted the offer. I then built the house we had planned at Merchantville, N. J. At the same time I acquired the site at Point & Elm Streets, Camden, N. J., and built my first factory. The property was built for cash and never had a mortgage on it. It was completed and occupied in 1895 when I was thirty-two years old.”